Lunch (and Breakfast) Outdoors

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COVID-19 doesn’t take a lunch break.

The “L” in “VITAL” is for outdoor meals. The principal mode of infection with COVID-19 is through exposure to airborne respiratory droplets that can travel more than six feet (CDC). So mixing cohorts of students and unmasking indoors puts COVID-19 on the menu for those sharing in the air in our cafeterias. The CDC recommended that communal dining halls be closed for a reason.

Eating indoors a bad idea, and here’s why:


Indoor activities are about 19x more risky for transmission of COVID-19, compared to doing the same activities outdoors.

Indoor dining doubles your odds of catching COVID-19, the CDC says. (Other studies, too.)

The CDC says recommends closing cafeterias and going outdoors to eat in their operational guidelines. If not possible, a classroom where cohorting is maintained is better.

 “As feasible, have children eat meals outdoors or in classrooms, while maintaining social distance (at least 6 feet apart) as much as possible, instead of in a communal dining hall or cafeteria.” Link: Operating schools during COVID-19: CDC’s Considerations

A new study featured by the CDC found that clusters of COVID-19 in Georgia elementary schools were associated with “non-essential” socializing and possibly eating indoors.  Specifically, two clusters were caught that involved probable educator-to-educator transmission during lunches and in-person meetings. Five outbreaks involving students could have happened while students ate lunch in their classrooms, the report said. The very first statement of the findings says: “in-school transmission can occur when physical distancing and mask compliance are not optimal.” (AKA masks are off.) This study — unlike so many others — included broader testing that caught cases.

700 epidemiologists (and Dr. Fauci) say indoor dining is the riskiest activity you can do.

Virus particles floating in the air cannot be blocked by lunchtime partitions. 

Small particles containing virus will linger in the air for UP TO 16 HOURS ensuring that ALL CLASSES in the cafeteria could be exposed to each other. Aerosol particles need at least 4-6 hours to “fall.” 

Grouping students together for indoor unmasked lunch cancels out the risk mitigation safety created elsewhere through small class sizes and cohorting.

Eating indoors reduces the ability to effectively contact trace.

  • Some schools have random seating throughout large communal spaces inside a building, that will make it impossible to know who ate near whom.
  • Schools will need to inform EVERYONE who ate lunch in a shared space EVERY TIME there is a SINGLE POSITIVE case within a school building.

6 feet of distance is NOT a magic protective barrier when you have your mask off.

  •  COVID-19 transmission has been documented at a radius of 10-43 feet away from the infectious person indoors. 
  • South Korean restaurant study confirmed time needed for an exposure was just five minutes and that the airborne virus traveled 21 feet in that time. Link: Evidence of Long-Distance Droplet Transmission of SARS-CoV-2

A recent study of how the NFL pulled off its season, which was featured by CDC, highlighted that ELIMINATING indoors eating and drinking was CRITICAL to allowing the season to proceed. 


Let’s figure out how to go outside and eat meals safely!

How to Take COVID-19 Off the Menu

DOWNLOAD PDF: Lunch Best Practices

DOWNLOAD PDF: Notes from Teacher-Parent Brainstorm on Outdoor Meal Logistics

Key Considerations


For high schools, students may already be allowed to go outside unsupervised for lunch. For middle schools, it is suggested to have two adults present, in case one has to deal with a situation with a student. For primary grades, one option is to have students seated in chairs or on mats at 6’ distance while eating and unmasked, then move directly to recess in cohorts.


Middle school lunch will be 35 minutes long, however, with it being a grab and go scenario (no hot food service, no choices, no cashier) the line should move extremely fast.  Speed is also aided by the vastly reduced cafeteria head count.


Students are normally comfortable outside if the temperature is above 40 degrees, unless it is raining or too wet from previous rain. (Note: in March, the average high is 56, the average low is 35, and there is an average of 7 days of rain. For the COVID time period, to reduce cafeteria numbers, some schools may wish to go outside even if the temperature is below 40 degrees.)


Students should be masked when not eating, even when outdoors.  Right now the advice is to avoid all sports that involve shared equipment.  Remember that under almost all circumstances being outdoors is safer than being indoors.  Make being outdoors enjoyable so a maximum number of students are encouraged to be outside.

Notes from the Field

These notes are provided based on years of managing outdoor lunch at one of the middle schools in the county, by the TJMS Community Garden Coordinator/Outdoor Learning Chair. 

Worried about how outdoor lunch actually works? Here’s some real talk about managing students, weather, and activities outdoors.


I have found that lunch supervision’s effectiveness is determined more often by the management style of the adults than the number of adults.  We try to always have a minimum of two adults for outdoor time.  The key is to remind yourself what qualifies as age appropriate behavior and triage your interventions to those behaviors which pose life-safety risks or having students’ experiences at lunch unfavorable.  Basically, I don’t get too overly involved unless somebody is going to get hurt or somebody is a victim of taunting, harassment, or some other type of ridicule which could ruin a child’s day.  Ultimately, most days we have two adults inside and two adults outside.  You always need to have two adults because one might become temporarily unavailable due to an unexpected problem.


We allow students who plan to go outside get their lunches first.


During the school year we use 40 degrees as our determining factor.  Above 40 we go out, less than that we stay in.  The problem is, if you have too few takers to go out you are left with more kids indoors, yet two of the total four lunch staff would still have to go outside with a small group of kids and thus leave a larger group indoors with two staff.   If everything is wet or it’s raining we tend to stay in.


During COVID we have been discouraged from any sports which involve close person to person spacing or shared contact of balls, Frisbees, etc.