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How will schools keep children safe from COVID during unmasked lunchtime?

Published: Sep. 7, 2021 at 3:44 PM EDT
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SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - With children under 12 making up the largest unvaccinated group in Vermont, and as the delta variant spreads, we wondered how schools are managing during periods like lunch and snack time, where students are unmasked to eat.

I visited the Rick Marcotte Central School in South Burlington to learn about that district’s protocols.

“I think like any parent, we’re all concerned for the safety of our children because that’s just how we’re wired,” said Victoria Zaluski, a school interventionist and the parent of a fifth-grader.

COVID-19 is impacting schools throughout the state, especially elementary schools where children under 12 are not vaccinated.

“The delta variant hasn’t had too much trouble finding those unvaccinated groups, including the younger children. I think it is important to acknowledge the risk is different this year than it was last year,” said Dr. Ben Lee, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at the University of Vermont Medical Group.

The South Burlington School District knows this, so their day-to-day operations have changed to make sure the delta variant does not infect their students or staff during unmasked meal time.

“Decisions are being made based on data,” said Kathleen Kilbourne, the principal of the Rick Marcotte Central School.

One of the mealtime precautions is an outdoor tent for snack time with seats and students spread out. Once students finish their meals, they are required they put their masks back on.

“We are very thankful for the opportunity to be outside as much as possible,” Kilbourne said.

Zaluski says her daughter is completely accustomed to this new lifestyle.

“Really she just adapted so well to wearing a mask and following the protocols and that gives her a sense of feeling safe,” Zaluski said.

School lunch happens in the cafeteria. Unmasked time indoors poses a higher risk for COVID-19 transmission, so they’re separating meal times by grade level with staggered lunchtimes. Seating is separated by plastic dividers and hand sanitizer is required upon entry.

COVID precautions for lunchtime at the Rick Marcotte Central School in South Burlington.
COVID precautions for lunchtime at the Rick Marcotte Central School in South Burlington.(Courtesy: Kathleen Kilbourne)

“Last year we didn’t even eat in the cafeteria, we ate in classrooms and outside,” Kilbourne said. “This year, we’re able to start the year based on guidelines in the cafeteria. However, there are precautionary guidelines we are taking.”

Dr. Lee says that indoor transmission is more likely to occur the longer students are unmasked, but he does not feel that briefly eating meals should be a large cause for concern.

“Just because we recognize that there will be these small windows of time where children need to be unmasked, that doesn’t mean that masking during the rest of the day isn’t effective,” Lee said.

During the winter months, Principal Kilbourne says children will spread out for snack time in classrooms with dividers for 10-minute periods.

Unless it’s less than 10 degrees, recess will continue to be outdoors.

The cafeteria will operate the same.

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