What does Louisiana school lunchtime look like during a pandemic?

With the new school year starting, districts try to make student lunch as safe as possible

By: - August 27, 2021 7:00 am

Second grader Madison Marchand on her first day of school at Claiborne Elementary School (Photo courtesy of the Caddo School System)

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

Though mask mandates are in place for Louisiana schools, educators still have to safely navigate lunchtime, where students have to remove masks in order to eat. 

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

“[The students] are still in static groups and socially distanced but they’ve been able to walk to the cafeteria, pick up a hot meal (not prepackaged) on a tray and sit down at a table similar to a lunch period before COVID,” said Charnae McDonald, spokeswoman for Caddo public schools.  

Managing school lunches earlier on in 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 of 2020, when their buildings were closed. 

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When schools reopened last year, the schools only offered prepackaged meals, which were brought to elementary classrooms. Middle school and high school students also had prepackaged lunches, but could choose to eat it outside or in their classrooms. 

Though most students have gone back to in-person learning, COVID-19 is a greater threat than ever to Louisiana children, some health officials say. The delta variant is more infectious than previous variants of COVID-19 and younger demographics are increasingly affected, leading to more concerns about student safety than last year. 

From Monday to Wednesday, there were 6,146 confirmed COVID-19 cases in children, with 63 COVID-19 pediatric cases admitted to the hospital. Around 31% of all newly reported COVID-19 cases in the state are in children below the age of 18. With COVID-19 vaccines only approved for ages 12 and up, younger students don’t have access to as much protection as adults. 

So in East Baton Rouge, the public school system is taking the same approach to lunches as it did last year.  Most schools have scheduled lunch shifts to minimize exposure, along with different locations where students could eat, with some lunches held in classrooms and some students allowed to eat outside, said Nadine Mann, executive direction of the school district’s child nutrition program. 

“The kids adapted, they were eating in the classroom, they could eat in a courtyard area outside or in the dining room if they could socially distance. I think it’s been working out fine, I’m not hearing a lot of complaints,” Mann said.

 Mann said the main issue with lunchtime comes from staffing, with the system struggling to fill empty positions. She is short around 20 to 40 people to work the school lunch shift on any given day. 

School kitchen employees are absent due to sickness or personal issues. The system just started partnering with a company that sends in substitutes to cover shifts, but Mann said the company is also struggling to find workers, “it’s just a very tight labor market right now.” 

“We’re no different from every restaurant you see ‘help wanted’ on the door. It’s kind of a national crisis, to have enough labor to cover what you need to do,” Mann said. 

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The district had already implemented disposable trays and utensils around 25 years ago to save on costs and time, so there has not been too much of a change to the 55,000 meals served daily within the program. 

Now though, other school systems and restaurants are after the same packaging product Baton Rouge schools use, a lidded takeout container that works well for delivering food safely during COVID-19. Mann said the system bought enough containers to hopefully stay ahead of the current shortage. 

“We stockpiled it. We knew we were going to need this so we brought it into our warehouse and we have it in holding so we can send it out,” Mann said. 

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

Rachel Mipro has previous experience at WBRZ and The Reveille and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Louisiana State University. At LSU, she worked as an opinion editor for The Reveille and as a nonfiction editor for the university’s creative writing journal. In her free time, she enjoys baking, Netflix and hiking.

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