As students at Oswego High School adjust to being back in school, they are also adjusting to new guidelines in the cafeteria in order to lower the risk of transmission of COVID-19. However, staff members are struggling to enforce protocols in the lunchroom because of the limited space and large number of students. 

During their lunch hour, students must wear a mask when they are not eating, sit four to a table, and practice social distancing in order to create a safe eating environment in the lunchroom. 

According to the School District 308 safety plan, students should be spaced three feet apart, measured from nose-to-nose.To encourage social distancing, desk pods have been added alongside tables in the cafeteria. The tables, which originally were able to seat eight people, have yellow tape blocking off every-other seat, leaving only four seats available per table. 

“It turns out that every other seat, or nose-to-nose, is about three-and-a-half feet. So if, or when, students decide that they’re not going to sit on the taped off seats… [with] every other seat, we are in compliance and socially distanced,” Mr. Brian Cooney, OHS assistant principal for building and operations, said.  

While tables individually provide enough space for students, desks in each pod should have “a little bit of a gap” between them to ensure the three feet of social distance is maintained, which is a hard feat when desks are on tile, according to Cooney. Cooney also explained that adding desks to the cafeteria was a decision made in order to provide enough seating and spacing for students, since there were not enough tables to accommodate the number of students in each lunch. 

Separating the actual lunch tables is also difficult, given the size of the cafeteria. Since three feet of spacing is recommended between each student during lunch, space for seating and walking through the cafeteria is more limited this year than it has been in previous years. 

“There are some tables that are a little overcrowded, but there’s also no more space really to go anywhere, so if they had the space available or could make the cafeteria larger, maybe that would be my only suggestion,” says Ms. Maggie Hill, an OHS lunch monitor and special education teacher, when asked how guidelines could be altered for the cafeteria.

The space between desks and tables in the cafeteria varies, as is seen when there are no students sitting in the lunchroom. Image credit: Miranda Mahoney

Staff in the cafeteria attempt to ensure students follow the guidelines and stay distanced the way they should be, but the limited space in the cafeteria and small number of staff in the lunchroom at each time makes enforcement a challenge.

“We have anywhere between three to six staff members in each cafeteria,” Cooney said. “The kids aren’t doing anything wrong, they’re just trying to be social and have lunch with their friends, which I totally understand, but if we are going to eat in the cafeteria, there are certain things we’ve gotta do.”

Logistically, separating students by adding yellow tape to tables and chairs is a good way to separate students the proper three feet that is required. However, students use lunch as a time to socialize with their friends and want to sit with as many people as they can. 

“Trying to say that ‘every seat is going to be occupied by every single student, so therefore we could all fit,’ doesn’t work,” Cooney said. “I understand that you’ll have some empty tables there—I also understand the challenge that kids have not been in lunch together in awhile. They want to sit with their friends, [and] they’re used to sitting eight at a table…Unfortunately, we can’t do that so we’re trying to do our best for kids to understand ‘develop your four.’”

Developing a solid group of four students who sit together is beneficial to ensuring all distancing protocols are followed in the cafeteria because the same four students can sit together at a table each day. Despite this, students still have the freedom to change their seats every day.

“It’s different every day because there aren’t assigned seats,” Liliana Murrillo, an OHS junior, said.

Some students are eating while some other students wait in line for their lunch, and the yellow tape that has been placed on tables to provide adequate social distancing can be seen. Image credit: Miranda Mahoney

The space between students in the cafeteria on a day-to-day basis is largely dependent on the students. Students can choose if they want to be more spaced than others and if they want to clean down their area with wipes provided in the cafeteria before eating. However, students still need to avoid sitting on the marked off seats. 

“I think the way the desks are spaced right now… there are some options if they want to spread out or if they prefer to sit with their friends. I think the kids that are wanting to be distanced more tend to navigate themselves away from other people,” Hill said. 

While some students are attempting to distance more from others, the limited space in the cafeteria leaves other students close together and monitors trying to separate students that choose to sit on seats with yellow tape. 

“Some people are spaced and some are not,” Mr. Aaron Kolkay, an OHS art teacher and sixth period lunch monitor, said. “There’s only so much three adults can do to enforce this.”

Both Hill and Kolkay agree that students are as spaced as possible with the amount of room in the cafeteria, but it would be ideal if there was more space available for students to eat. Despite a lack of space, staff members in the cafeteria try to keep students as spaced as possible and in compliance with CDC guidelines and the district safety plan. 

“[There are] teachers in the lunchroom telling you…  you can only sit four to a table,” Katelyn Watson, an OHS junior, said. 

While the current recommendation by the CDC  is to allow three feet of space between students at school, that distance could increase to six feet if the number of positive cases in the school increases significantly. In that case, the school would need to consider adding a secondary lunch location for students.  

“If we had to distance more we would probably have to revert back to [the cafeteria and auxiliary gym] because if we had to go to six-foot, we wouldn’t be able to hold that capacity in the cafeteria,” Cooney said.

The school did not follow through with having a secondary location for lunch currently because of issues with timing and planning which students have to go to which location. 

“We felt that if we could make it work in the cafeteria and spill out into the atrium that we would have a much cleaner process in serving the food, getting kids fed, cleaning the area, and everything if we could have it all in one space,” Cooney said. 

However, students would be open to having a secondary location, possibly the auditorium, as a secondary lunch location, as long as they can sit where they choose.

“Having people eat in the auditorium and the lunchroom would be nice, but I get that it is a big school so there is not a lot of space,” Paige Woodland, an OHS Junior, said.

Since planning new guidelines for the cafeteria in order to keep students and staff safe during a pandemic, there is a bit of a learning curve to the process, and the OHS Panther Family has to work together to iron out any struggles that arise.

“I just hope one day and someday soon, we are eating in the cafeteria where you want and sitting with your friends and not worrying about yellow tape. Until we get there, I appreciate all the work our staff is doing and all the understanding that our kids are showing,” Cooney said. 

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