Parents Concerned with COVID-19 Spread at Lunch; Urge MCPS to Create Specific Plans

Nearly 3,000 people, the vast majority describing themselves as parents or guardians, signed an on-line petition urging Montgomery County Public Schools to mandate a new detailed lunch policy that would enable students to eat outdoors.

In its Aug. 13 recovery guide, MCPS stated it will “[e]ncourage the use of outdoor spaces for unmasked educational and social experiences for our students” and also that “[s]tudents will be able to eat breakfast and lunch in cafeterias and other available eating areas.” The guide also noted, “Schools will receive support in considering ways to maximize outdoor spaces.”

Basically, individually schools are tasked with creating their own lunch policy, and Meghan Biss is unsatisfied with the lack of detailed directions. She has two students at Greenwood Elementary School in Brookeville, both too young to be vaccinated. Lunchtime, when “students are crowded into a single lunchroom is going to be the highest risk time,” she said.

While she is aware of a few schools that are utilizing outdoor areas during lunchtime when students take their masks off to eat and whose PTAs have purchased yoga mats and canopies, the school her children attends plans only to allow one grade per day to eat outside, according to its recently-released newsletter. There are four fifth grade classes, and only one will be allowed to eat outdoors on any given day, she pointed out.

“I know that our PTA has offered a variety of ways to help,” she told MyMCM. However, it has been told that they need to weigh the concerns of having all students eat outdoors to mitigate the risks of spreading COVID-19 with other safety risks. As to the parents’ suggestion that they would be willing to purchase picnic tables, they were told that all purchasing has to be done through MCPS.

Biss called that “insane,” mostly because of the length of time it would take.

“We are trying to get our principal to think outside of the box, but she’s a new principal,” Biss noted. “We’ve heard great things about her, but we have never worked with her.”

According to the on-line petition, without a district-wide policy, MCPS is not adhering to its own equity policy as lunch protocols will differ at each school, especially if the schools end up relying on the PTA for extra supplies and costs.

MCPS often stresses its commitment to equity. Without official guidance and funding support for outdoor lunch and learning, schools may turn to PTA funding, which varies significantly by school.

Council President Tom Hucker sent a two-page letter to Superintendent Monifa McKnight, calling the lack of a districtwide policy “an equity and safety issue.” MCPS has not offered guidance on how to evaluate school grounds, what to do in bad weather and what staffing is needed, he noted, adding that outdoor space should be utilized for both lunch and learning.

Schools with well-funded PTAs may obtain tents, heaters and other equipment that schools in lower economic areas cannot afford, Hucker noted.

Hucker tweeted, “We are requesting a formal plan with specific guidance that will keep our most vulnerable constituents, as well as our students & families, equitably safe during unmasked meals. ”

In its statement about the start of the new school year, the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teachers Association asked MCPS “to formalize templates for use of outdoor spaces to ensure students have multiple opportunities each day to meet in outdoor spaces. Further, MCCPTA calls on MCPS to publish clear plans to ensure students are sufficiently spaced during unmasked activities.”

MCPS guideline contains “broad statements” and “falls short of providing explicit instruction for, and details of the kind of support available to, schools regarding use of these spaces,” it wrote in the statement.

MCPS has 208 schools and a total of 3,000 acres, and no two schools are alike, the association noted in its Aug. 17 statement.

April Jones, who provided a link to the petition on her Facebook page, posted, “One of my major concerns about my son returning to school is unmasked lunch. The risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission is over 18 times lower outdoors.”

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