Editor’s note: This guest essay is part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Read more columns by local students at st.news/studentvoices2021.
After more than a year of virtual school, I returned to (hybrid) in-person learning at Sammamish High School in early April. Like many of my classmates, I had a successful first day back — except for the huge headache I came home with. The reason? Hunger and dehydration.
Working online from home, I’d grown accustomed to being able to run into the kitchen whenever I felt hungry, so going five hours between breakfast and lunch felt like an eternity. As rules and safety precautions filled my brain, my focus quickly dissolved into a pounding head and growling stomach.
Turns out many of my classmates feel the same way. In normal years, most secondary-school classrooms allow students to eat snacks during class, and many students do. However, with concerns regarding contaminated surfaces and the spread of respiratory droplets, the Bellevue School District, as well as many school districts throughout Washington state, chose to prohibit classroom snacking during the pandemic.
For many students, these restrictions have hindered their health and learning. “Not being able to eat in school has drastically hurt my ability to focus both inside and outside of school,” said Newport High School sophomore Mihir Sharma. “While I do understand BSD’s decision to ban consumption of food on school grounds, it has negatively impacted my ability to perform both inside and outside of school.”
Head of BSD Nutrition Services Wendy Weyer said plans for next year’s nutrition programs are still undecided and will be heavily influenced by the ever-changing Washington Department of Health guidelines. Snacking in classrooms is also subject to DOH guidance, as are programs such as breakfast vending machines and a la carte meal services. That said, Weyer did share that the school district hopes to move to a normal meal program in the fall to allow for a more regular return to school. While programs for next year are still undetermined, BSD curbside meals will continue to be provided for free throughout the summer.
Sammamish High School sophomore Kali Taleck has also been impacted by school COVID-19 eating policies. Although she said that not eating in class didn’t really bother her, she believes “an occasional snack could be helpful to keep students’ energy up.” While BSD doesn’t allow eating, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does provide guidelines for students to safely eat entire meals at school. State guidance also allows for safe indoor dining, so it seems that there should be a way to compromise and let students snack at school.
Taleck proposes students step to the back of the classroom or be given time outdoors to take a socially distanced snack break. She said she feels these precautions would keep everyone safe while also letting students get the nourishment they need to keep learning. CDC guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19 during school mealtimes also list distancing, ventilation and hand-washing as ways to make it feasible for students to eat during the school day.
At a federal level, the United States Department of Agriculture approved funding to allow schools to continue to provide free meals for all students during the 2021-22 school year. BSD’s Weyer hopes that this will serve as a trial for a new lunch model where students no longer have to pay for meals. “Just like transportation is a part of education…[we hope that] those barriers of paying for your meal [will go] away after this school year,” she said.
As I spend more time in the classroom, I’ve grown accustomed to not eating in school, but I still come home very hungry and with the occasional headache. While this year’s COVID-19 eating policies hindered many students’ health and studies, school districts now have the opportunity to redesign their policies with student wellness in mind. As districts plan for next school year, it is important to take into account students’ perspectives, needs and suggestions, as well as general safety precautions to help kids succeed.