COVID-19 and the Cafeteria: School districts release fall safety plans

VIDEO: COVID-19 and the Cafeteria: School districts release fall safety plans

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - School meals, like most things, will be a lot different this year. Lowcountry districts have been challenged to find a way for kids to return to cafeterias safely amid the coronavirus pandemic, and they are starting to reveal some of their plans for how the new lunch lines will work.

Charleston County

In Charleston County schools, students can expect some of their favorite meals to return to the menu, like build-your-own nachos, Asian chicken, and pizza. However, they won’t come on a tray. Instead, students will start the lunch line at a sanitation station where they will clean their hands with a pump of hand sanitizer. Next, they will grab a plastic bag to fill it with the sealed, pre-packaged components of their meal. Stickers have been placed on the floor, showing kids where to stand so they remain six feet apart. The new system allows nutrition services team members to avoid hand to hand contact with children in line. The meal instead is placed in a staging area for the student to grab.

“From the time the food comes in the back door, we keep it as safe as possible until the time it is served to your child,” CCSD Executive Director of Nutrition Services Walter Campbell said.

CCSD has also implemented contactless payment. Students can tell the cashier their log in number or first and last name or they can have either identification badges scanned. Only in CEP elementary schools, team members will use a tally sheet to record students’ meal transactions.

“We’ve put a lot of precautions in place, to not only keep serving hot food, but to do it safely,” Campbell said. “A lot of thought has gone into this and we’ll come up with additional ideas.”

Nutrition Service team members will also be operating a bit differently. As soon as they arrive to work, they will fill out a questionnaire. It asks them if they’ve had any COVID symptoms, close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID in the last 14 days, and then they will have their temperature checked before they start their shift. It the temperature is higher than 100 degrees, they will be required to immediately return to their vehicles and contact their supervisor.

“Everybody is going to get their temperature taken,” Campbell said. “It starts right there…they’re sanitizing their hands. They are wearing their face coverings.”

Once students go through the lines, team members will clean all contact surfaces to prepare for the next class to move through the lunch line.

“Our goal is to not only feed the students, but our number one priority is always to make sure food safety and student safety is at the top of what we do,” CCSD Nutrition Services Officer Joe Pettit said.

“We want to be as quick as possible and as smooth as possible. So, they aren’t waiting in line, they can get their meals and go right on,” Campbell said. “Our staff is extremely hopeful, extremely optimistic…they love their kids…and they are committed to, whether its virtual or in the cafeteria itself, serving the best food possible.”

Berkeley County

Berkeley County students can expect similar procedures in their lunch lines. Students will be required to sanitize their hands before and after eating. If picking up their meal from the cafeteria, students will rotate on a staggered schedule. However, where they will eat, will be determined by each school. Students could be in the cafeteria or in classrooms, either way they will be required to follow social distancing guidelines.

“Our schools are writing school-specific plans. Our schools are all very unique with the layout, enrollment,” BCSD spokesperson Katie Tanner said. “This is a very fluid situation, and we are making decisions based on the information we have currently.”

According to the district’s reopening plan, if students are eating in the classroom, school administration will be responsible for designating staff to wipe down desks before and after meals.

Students with allergies can be accommodated with an allergen-free zone to eat their meals. Disposable serving items and grab-and-go and a la carte options will be used when it’s possible. Lastly, hot meals will be served by child nutrition staff members only. Students will not be allowed to touch serving utensils.

“Not only are you going to see some differentiation between schools, but you’re going to see some differences within classrooms within the same school,” Tanner said. Some of our schools are K3 to 5th grade, so what 3, 4, and 5-year olds may be doing, may look very different than what 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders…our child nutrition staff has a plan to try to meet each schools’ needs, but they truly are trying to tailor their presentation and their plans to meet the needs of the school and sometimes down to the needs of the students in a classroom.”

Tanner said the school board’s decision to move the start of school back to September 8th was influential in giving officials more time to figure out the best plans possible to address these challenges.

“They are being great about their flexibility and making sure they are still able to deliver their services in a quality way, while also doing it in as safe a way as possible,” Tanner said. “These are things we are continuing to review, and continuing to question even in our own leadership meetings about what is going to be the best delivery and trying to balance that with what our schools need, overall, as a school population. But also, what our students are going to need individually in a classroom.”

Dorchester County

Dorchester County School District Two is outsourcing its nutrition services this year. DD2 has hired Sodexo to feed children breakfast and lunch each day. The change is not an outcome of the pandemic though. Spokesperson Pat Raynor said the plan to contract DD2′s nutrition services with a private company were already in the works before schools closed because of COVID earlier this year. The district is still working with Sodexo to coordinate specific plans for how meals will be served this school year.

“The goal has been to transition the management of the day to day food service operations to a qualified vendor that is an expert in the food service industry in an effort to increase student participation. State Procurement Regulations were followed in this competitive selection process,” Raynor said. “The district Director of Food/Nutrition Services retired in 2020, providing an opportune time to make the transition to a contracted service. As a part of the agreement with the provider, all current district food service employees were offered employment with the contracted service provider.”

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