What does Louisiana school lunchtime look like during a pandemic?

With the fourth surge in the COVID-19 delta variant still raging, Louisiana’s K-12 school systems have had to restructure their most basic services – even school lunches.

Although Louisiana schools have mask requirements, educators still need to safely navigate lunchtime, when students must remove masks to eat.

In Caddo Parish, which has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates at 33.96%, the public school system allows students to have hot meals in the cafeteria for the first time in over a year.

“[The students] are still in static groups and socially distant, but they could go to the cafeteria, pick up a hot meal (not prepackaged) on a tray, and sit at a table that resembles a lunch break before COVID, ”said Charnae McDonald, spokeswoman for the public Caddo schools.

Managing school lunches at the start of the pandemic was much more difficult, McDonald said.

Caddo public schools delivered more than 750,000 meals to students at home from March to July 2020 when their buildings were closed.

When schools reopened last year, schools only offered packaged meals brought to elementary school classes. Middle and high school students were also given prepackaged lunches but were able to eat them outside or in their classrooms.

Although most students have returned to face-to-face learning, COVID-19 is a bigger threat than ever to children in Louisiana, some Health officials say. The Delta variant is more contagious than previous variants of COVID-19 and younger populations are increasingly affected, leading to more student safety concerns than last year.

from Monday to Wednesday, it was 6,146 confirmed COVID-19 cases in children, with 63 pediatric COVID-19 cases hospitalized. Around 31% of all newly reported COVID-19 cases in the state are in children below the Age from 18. Since COVID-19 vaccines are only approved for ages 12 and up, younger students don’t have as much protection as adults.

So in East Baton Rouge, the public school system takes the same approach to lunch as it did last year. Most schools have scheduled lunch shifts to minimize exposure, along with various places for students to eat, with some lunches being in classrooms and some students being allowed to eat outside, said Nadine Mann, executive director of the school district’s child nutrition program.

“The children have adapted, they ate in the classroom, they could eat outside in the courtyard or in the dining room if they could distance themselves socially. I think it went well, I don’t hear a lot of complaints, ”said Mann.

Mann said the main problem with the lunch break is staffing as the system is struggling to fill vacancies. She has around 20 to 40 people on the lunch shift at school on any given day.

School kitchen staff are absent due to illness or personal problems. The system has just started working with a company that sends out shift replacements, but Mann said the company is also struggling to find workers, “the job market is just very tight right now”.

“We are no different from any restaurant where“ Help wanted ”is written on the door. It’s kind of a national crisis to have enough manpower to cover what you need to do, ”said Mann.

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The district had already introduced disposable trays and utensils around 25 years ago, in order to save costs and time, not too much has changed in the program of the 55,000 meals served daily.

Now, however, other school systems and restaurants are following the same packaging product Baton Rouge schools use, a lid-and-take-away container that is good for safely delivering food during COVID-19. Mann said the system bought enough containers to hopefully stay ahead of the current scarcity.

“We kept it in stock. We knew we would need this, so we brought it to our warehouse and have it in stock so we can ship it, ”said Mann.

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