There’s a major weak point in school COVID-19 protocols: meal times

The situation with COVID-19 and schools is a mess.

The policymakers’ mantra is that schools are safe. However, schools are only safe if they follow safety protocols. They are only safe if people who may have the virus do not expose others.

Recently, the CDC changed its guidelines, saying anyone with COVID-19 can shorten their isolation period from 10 to five days, and many schools quickly adopted these new rules. “Wear a mask at all times.

In theory, this could work. If children or adults infected with the virus could keep their masks on “at all times”, they might not spread the virus.

However, there is one key omission in the CHOP guidelines: meal times. There is simply not enough awareness and attention to the dangers that eating and drinking can pose to children during the pandemic.

“There just isn’t enough awareness and attention to the dangers that eating and drinking can pose to children during the pandemic.”

Whitney Schott

At mealtimes, large groups of children, many of whom have carefully worn their masks all day, collectively take off their masks for lunch. Or to have snacks in class. Sometimes they can be six feet apart. Often this is not the case, as most schools do not have the physical space to adequately separate students. And during the winter months, eating out is almost impossible.

What is the point of carefully enforcing mask use all day so that they all remove them all simultaneously? It’s like wearing a seatbelt all day, then taking it off to play a game of bumper cars with your closest 50 to 100 friends.

The failure to address safety at this crucial time in the school day leaves districts in the lurch.

Recently, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health released guidance for schools, which fortunately addressed meal times: Specifically, it recommends that schools provide a space where students who have tested positive can eat separate from others during the period of six to 10 days after infection.

It’s a good step and I think schools in neighboring counties should adopt it as well. But that does not solve the weak point that meals pose to our attempts to prevent transmission in schools. Yes, we should isolate children who have tested positive for a few more days, but what about children who don’t know they are sick and contagious? (A Philadelphia Public Schools spokesperson said principals maintain seating plans in dining halls to keep children in cohorts — which makes contact tracing easier — and use large rooms or outdoor spaces whenever possible.)

This misunderstanding of the risks associated with school meals has spread to the whole community. I hear of too many cases, like kids’ birthday parties, where parents make sure to keep kids masked up until they get all the kids together to sit side by side for pizza and a cake, without a mask.

Schools – and parents – need guidance.

READ MORE: Many Philadelphia schools likely unable to adopt new CDC guidelines, district and health department say

When distancing isn’t possible, here are some additional ways to minimize transmission of COVID-19 during meals:

  • Maximize ventilation and filtration. Leave doors and windows open and ask children to bring their coats during lunch if necessary. Install portable HEPA filtration devices. Upgrade filters on building HVAC systems.

  • Keep the masks as long as possible during lunch. Consider having children move their mask only to take a bite or sip, then cover again with a mask.

  • Minimize aerosols. Try to keep shouting and talking to a minimum, as this increases aerosols that could contain the virus. Encourage children to be more calm. Some schools might consider educational videos, meditation music, or other ways to encourage children to stay calmer during mealtimes.

  • Get the students involved! Children can contribute to signage that can be posted in the cafeteria, encourage mask use, and provide other encouraging messages about working together to rid our schools of the virus. Children can help think of lunchtime entertainment options that can reduce noise levels.

To truly keep schools safe, there needs to be a lot more awareness and attention to the risks posed by meals in schools and other indoor gatherings.

Whitney Schott is a research scientist at Drexel University who focuses on child health and development and access to health services among vulnerable populations.

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