MINNEAPOLIS — For about three hours each day, the courtyard at Burroughs Community School in south Minneapolis functions as a second lunchroom. Students bring their lunch trays and lunchboxes to picnic tables, where they sit a few feet apart.

The goal is to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19 among students, all too young to be vaccinated, particularly during mealtimes when students have their masks off. And it seems to be working: only three children have had to quarantine because of potential COVID exposure over the lunch hour.

"It's been really worth it because it allows us to really space our students a lot more than before," Principal Margaret-Vecchio Smith said.

Parents in Minneapolis and some surrounding districts have pushed for outdoor lunch, but ongoing staffing shortages in schools mean that many buildings just don't have the help to offer it. Burroughs is one of the only Minneapolis schools offering lunch outdoors. Last year, many schools had students eat in their classrooms in order to maintain social distancing and reduce exposure outside individual classrooms.

In addition to masking and maintaining at least 3 feet of distance between students, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends utilizing gyms or outdoor spaces for mealtimes to avoid overcrowding in cafeterias. But moving students around requires additional logistics, which are likely to get even more complicated when Minnesota winters eliminate the possibility of eating outside.

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Districts are also facing cafeteria challenges related to supply chain shortages, said Scott Croonquist, the executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts. Schools are having to change their menus on short notice because of incomplete shipments, and overstretched vendors are often unable to offer replacements for broken kitchen equipment.

Edina schools are also offering outdoor lunch at six elementary buildings and the high school. The city's middle schools don't have the outside space to accommodate students for meals, said Mary Woitte, spokeswoman for the district.

The shift has required additional supervision, especially for elementary students, she said.

"Parents (and aunties and neighbors) have responded wonderfully by volunteering to help," Woitte said in an email.

Nice weather and parent support have also allowed Burroughs to continue having students eat outside through most of October — about a month later than originally planned. Students eat outside every few days as part of a rotation that determines which classrooms head to the courtyard at lunchtime.

Vecchio-Smith is new to Burroughs this year and knew during her first tour of the school that she wanted to use the courtyard to help mitigate potential COVID-19's spread.

Still, she was aware that splitting students up between both indoor and outdoor lunchrooms would stretch her staff even further in a year plagued with staffing shortages.

But parents stepped up. They started a sign up sheet for the six volunteers needed per day to help with outdoor lunch duty. So far, that list has remained full.

Burroughs is privileged to have parents with flexible schedules and reliable child care that allows them to be able to help out in the middle of weekday, Vecchio-Smith said.

"We know those resources aren't always available to all parents in Minneapolis Public Schools," she said.

Even so, operating two lunch areas requires additional school staff since volunteers can't be alone with students without a teacher or administrator present. That means paraprofessionals, school counselors and even Vecchio-Smith herself are spending a few hours a week in the lunchroom or the courtyard.

School leaders are working with the district to come up with a plan for spacing students throughout the building during lunch once the weather forces them inside.

That may mean bringing washable floor mats into the atrium during mealtime and having students spread out on the floor. Other options, including rolling tables or folding tables inside, are too costly and time consuming for the school and its staff, Vecchio-Smith said.

Continuing to send children outside for meals would require some sort of shelter and ongoing volunteer support.

"It's hard no matter what we do," she said. "There just aren't infinite resources."

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