A letter written by three medical doctors and signed by 170 other parents is urging a Burlington County school district to reconsider allowing students to eat together in a cafeteria as part of a COVID-19 reopening plan.
“Children sitting at tables without masks in an environment that encourages talking loudly and eating are at significant increased risk of spreading infection to those at their table and nearby tables, as has been demonstrated in outbreaks in restaurants,” said the letter addressed to officials of the Moorestown school district, dated Aug. 3. “It stands to reason that the safety standards set for our students should be far higher than those set for restaurants, in which patronage is voluntary.”
Two of the three parents who wrote the letter, Dr. Lauren Marlowe and Dr. Tamara Solitro, declined further comment, but forwarded a copy of the letter, which was also signed by fellow parent Dr. Persephone Jones.
The K-12 Moorestown district plans to reopen on Sept. 8 with an alternating schedule of students attending all-day, in-school instruction on alternating weekdays. The students attending on Monday-Wednesday, Tuesday-Thursday,
would also be in school on alternating Fridays.
Sandra Alberti, the local Board of Education president, said Monday the district is open to parents’ concerns and the plan for school meals is “fluid.”
“Nothing in any of these plans is something that anybody feels ‘Yes we have the perfect solution,’” Alberti said. “All of these things are questions of balance. All of these things are fluid. Probably the most fluid part of our plan right now is the cafeteria.”
Alberti said the cafeterias in the six schools in the district of nearly 4,000 students all have more robust air-handling systems and higher ceilings than the classrooms. She said they would accommodate more students with proper distancing. She said officials also considered the logistics of cleaning one or two common eating spaces as opposed to up to eight classrooms if students eat in rooms, as the parents’ group has proposed. Alberti said eating in classrooms also would require the supervision of each as opposed to the personnel needed for more students eating in fewer spaces.
Alberti said the district also anticipated meeting state guidelines of limiting lunchrooms to 25% capacity by having alternate days for attendance and about 25% of district parents electing an all-remote lesson instruction for their children.
Plans to feed students at school varies wildly.
Cherry Hill, Moorestown’s neighbor, is on an alternating half-day schedule and will distribute meals to go at the end of the day, around noon. Two other nearby districts, Runnemede and Merchantville, plan to have students eat in classrooms.
New Jersey’s reopening guidelines, issued by the state Department of Education, say that if schools plan to use cafeterias for mealtime, they must stagger lunches to give more space for social distancing and keep kids six feet apart. The guidance also suggests that schools should “consider serving meals in classrooms or outside when possible instead of a group dining area.”
Moorestown is also using a “cohort” system to group students at its four elementary schools. The mixing of some of these cohorts during lunch, which include more than one classroom, was also a point of concern for the parents.
“Allowing children to interact with students from other class cohorts, unmasked, in the cafeteria will muddy the waters of who is considered a close contact and may require larger groups of students and staff to quarantine in the event of a positive case,” the letter said.
The parents also suggested exploring eating lunch outdoors under tents.
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