Officials underscore key considerations for nutrition services amid COVID-19

With the magnifying glass currently on when students and teachers may return to their classrooms, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to alter the jobs of millions of school classified and support service staff. For vital nutrition services employees, experts say that “prevention is the best medicine” and open communication is fundamental toward keeping cases out of the kitchen and campus at-large.

Made available through the California Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Food Safety and the Institute of Child Nutrition hosted the latest in a series of webinars on July 27, “Managing Personnel During COVID-19.” Officials addressed adherence with the Americans with Disabilities Act, selecting and handling of cloth face masks, considerations for appropriate screening and exclusion of food service employees from working, and preparing for potential employee illness.

USDA food safety specialist Lauren McClean and consultant chef and trainer Cyndie Story, who worked with the Obama White House on healthy school meal campaigns, said that support services such as nutrition, custodial and transportation must not be left out of reopening talks and plans. These employees’ circumstances should be considered, such as a staff member whose workplace school is physically open but whose child attends a school solely engaged in distance learning.

“Communication between and among staff at all levels is going to help us best manage this very unusual back to school,” Story said. “While these times have been hard and sometimes scary, it is truly my hope that all areas of education will have just a little better appreciation and understanding of what it is that we do and provide for children.”

Being cognizant of the higher risk for many employees

While all levels and areas of public education face considerable obstacles this school year, McClean said the flexibility of school nutrition jobs draws a large number of workers nearing or in their retirement years. That means many employees fall into the category of those at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, either due to age or underlying medical issues. An informal poll conducted during the webinar showed that 20 percent of food service managers or administrators have had between 5 and 15 percent of their staff approach them about these risk factor concerns.

Further, with reliability and attendance integral to food service operations and often incentivized, the experts said that school administrators should convey that this year more than ever, cautioning on the side of health and safety is paramount. “This is not the year to encourage perfect attendance,” McClean said.

To counteract the possibility of relying on food service workers to come on campus even if they are ill or may have been exposed to the virus, McClean suggests schools cross-train employees, lean on managers to fill gaps and keep a longer-than-usual list of substitute workers on file. “There should be more than in the past,” she said. “Although that is easier said than done, because people may be afraid to work in schools.”

Best practices to consider at the worksite

In addition to reinforcing the need for face coverings and gloves to be worn at all times and social distancing to be implemented to the extent practicable, Story also offered tips about how to best care for, clean and store personal protective equipment. Masks will need to be frequently changed she said, especially if a person is working with a dishwasher or sink and steam dampens a mask. In a second informal poll of attendees, 22 percent said they anticipate some pushback from employees on mask requirements, while 25 percent said maybe and 50 percent answered no.

Considerations to weigh for employees who cannot wear tight face coverings include a loose mask, having them work a shift with few others present or setting up a work station that allows them to socially distance. Story added that, if possible, staggered work schedules could be widely implemented. “Another advantage to staggered work schedules to keep smaller cohorts of staff working together instead of your entire team so that not everyone is exposed and required to quarantine at home,” she said.

Current and future webinar information, as well as COVID-19 best practices and resources, are housed on the institute’s website. Separately, the CDE continues to host its School Nutrition Town Hall series, with past videos available on the department’s YouTube channel.