School cafeterias under scrutiny as FCPS families, staff share COVID-19 anxieties

McNair Elementary School students pick up lunch on their first day of school for the 2021-2022 academic year (via FCPS)

As COVID-19 cases rise in Fairfax County Public Schools, so have concerns from parents, students, and staff, particularly when it comes to the cafeteria.

More than 205,000 students and staff in Fairfax County went back to school on Aug. 23 after 18 months of mostly remote learning. Excitement about seeing friends and having in-person classes mingled with frustration over transportation issues and pandemic-related anxieties.

After more than a week of classes, some community members have expressed increasing alarm at the sight of crowded cafeterias during lunch, jam-packed school hallways, and what they feel is a lack of oversight by FCPS administrators.

FCPS has seen a clear uptick in COVID-19 cases since classes began, according to its dashboard, which displays cases that are self-reported by students and staff and shared with the Fairfax County Health Department.

As of yesterday (Wednesday), the school system had recorded 351 new cases in August, including 266 cases involving students and 84 among staff. 252 cases have come in since schools reopened on Aug. 23.

While this remains a small percentage compared to the division’s overall population, which is the largest of any Virginia school district, the numbers still have many worried.

An online petition urging FCPS to offer a virtual option for more students has now garnered close to 5,000 signatures, almost double what it had in mid-August.

FCPS has a virtual program, but enrollment for this year was limited to students who personally have a documented medical need. Eligibility wasn’t extended to students based on health concerns in their family or household.

“FCPS believes that students learn best in-person,” an FCPS spokesperson said. “We are focused on providing a safe and positive learning experience for all students.”

Lunch time has emerged as a particular concern, since students have to remove the face masks that are otherwise required inside school buildings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention characterize mealtime at schools as a “high-risk situation.”

In particular, elementary school students are at risk.

While about 80% of middle and high school aged students in Fairfax County have gotten at least one vaccine dose, children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible. At this point, it’s not expected that vaccines will be available for those children until this winter if not early next year.

A parent of a student at Westbriar Elementary School in Vienna told FFXnow that, during the first week, she saw students “elbow-to-elbow” inside the small cafeteria, eating and talking without masks on. The school has an outdoor space with a tent, the parent says, but it isn’t being used enough.

The student said they “don’t feel safe” during lunch and snack time in school.

The parent doesn’t fault the young students, but rather, the administrators for not adequately monitoring or providing better options.

When these concerns are brought up to administrators, the parent feels like they’re ignored or given unsatisfying explanations, such as that it was raining, even though the outdoor space is under cover, or that letting one class go outside and not another wouldn’t be “equitable.”

The Westbriar parent takes their student out of school for lunch every day due to their health concerns, but admits many other families don’t have the time or ability to do that.

In an email to FFXnow, an individual who identified themselves as an FCPS staff member expressed concern that there has been “no social distancing” during lunch periods, singling out Fairfax High School in particular.

When staff members approached the school administration with their concerns, they were told that the school is “doing what is required of us by the county,” the tipster said.

FCPS officials have stressed that maintaining six or even three feet of social distancing in cafeterias would be impossible with 99.5% of the student body back in school buildings.

However, beyond having general guidelines about mask-wearing and directing elementary schools to establish seating charts, the division has mostly left the logistics of meals up to the discretion of individual schools.

“The size of every school cafeteria is different and the number of students at each school is different,” FCPS says on its website. “The physical layout of each cafeteria varies from school to school depending on size and student enrollment. Some schools (but not all) will have outdoor cafeteria spaces or options. These may be used on days when the weather is good.”

In a statement, an FCPS spokesperson confirmed that individual “administrators are tasked with making decisions on their individual school lunch set-ups,” though outdoor eating is encouraged when possible:

Where possible, students will eat outside and 186 tents have been installed to serve this purpose. Schools are also using additional spaces to space out students during lunch. Plexiglass, forward-facing seating and additional spacing between students is also being used to create a safe environment for students during lunch. Finally, some schools are extending lunch so students can be more spaced out in cafeterias. The situation is being reviewed in every school to make sure they are doing everything possible to create a safe and healthy environment.

Melanie Meren, who represents Hunter Mill District on the Fairfax County School Board, says she has seen different schools use a variety of methods to try create distance between students based on each building’s layout, seating, availability of outdoor space, and population.

School board members shared concerns that they had received about crowded cafeterias with FCPS Superintendent Scott Brabrand during a work session on Aug. 24. The board then approved a federal relief spending plan last Thursday (Aug. 26) that included $10 million to hire monitors for cafeterias, classrooms, and outdoor spaces.

“The School Board has given clear direction to the Superintendent that students should be using outdoor areas — whether that’s at picnic tables, under tents, on yoga mats, etc.,” Meren wrote in an email. “The Board approved use of funds to hire in-person monitors to supervise students in smaller groups during meals. This direction reflects input I’ve heard from some families who want more social distance in place when masks are off while eating.”

However, the onus remains on administrators at each of the county’s nearly 200 public schools to figure out how to implement tools like outdoor tents and cafeteria monitors, which the Westbriar parent finds less-than-ideal.

“Our principal is not a public health expert. This is totally out of her realm,” the parent said. “[Create] a health and doctor committee that can then go to these schools and give them wise words of wisdom and best practices.”

FCPS officials said during the Aug. 24 work session that they are working with an outside vendor to set up safety teams to monitor COVID-19 health practices at each school, like the ones that were deployed last year, but the hiring process was still underway at that point.

Dr. Amira Roess, a professor of epidemiology at George Mason University, says lunchtime in crowded, loud cafeterias is a huge concern for her, particularly for elementary school-aged children who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine.

“We know from a lot of outbreak investigations that eating, projecting your voice, singing, shouting, does carry a significant probability of infection,” she said.

She recommends eating in shifts, moving outdoors, and setting a good example.

“If the adults around [younger students] are modeling good mask-wearing behavior and are reminding them to wear masks, they tend to follow these rules and they wear their masks,” Roess said, adding that regular and frequent testing would also be a good strategy to identify potential sources of outbreaks.

FCPS has mandated that all employees get vaccinated against COVID-19 by late October or submit to regular testing, and the school system announced earlier this week that high school students must be vaccinated to participate in winter and spring sports this year.

However, there remains fewer protections for younger students. FCPS’s lunch time procedures and guidelines remain the same for high schools as they are for elementary schools, save for a required seating chart.

Roess acknowledged that the cost and logistics of these measures can be a challenge for schools that are often already overcrowded and under-resourced, but they could prevent what public health experts fear will be a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases among children.

“The problem with a lot of children getting infected at once is that it’s just a numbers game,” Roess said. “We’re going to have a larger number of kids who end up with more severe cases and will need to be hospitalized.”

Photo via FCPS