The newly enacted pandemic-based system used to deliver student lunches at Montana City School reminds one of a military logistics operation.
With the use of a centralized lunchroom shelved due to COVID-19 restrictions, the food service staff, led by Lauren Oelkers, had to reinvent how it carries out its mission.
And to make it work, the entire school support staff lends a hand to give teachers a break in a day that has changed dramatically due to the virus. For that reason, the school’s food service workers, its head of maintenance, paraprofessionals, as well as the school nurse, have been enlisted to help and adapt their own duties, and not unlike the teachers they support, these staffers are also on the pandemic front lines.
In its ongoing series, The Boulder Monitor has been highlighting those working on the front lines of the pandemic since it arrived in Montana, now nearly a year ago. In addition to school support staff, they are bus drivers, librarians, school support staff, postal workers and more.
This week, the Monitor talks to school support staffers at Montana City School about their work, the challenges brought on by the pandemic and what they miss most about life before COVID-19 became a daily threat.
“We had to recreate everything, our whole system,” said Oelkers of how meals are served this year at Montana City School.
Prior to the pandemic, students met for lunch in the gym, which was converted daily to a cafeteria that included two salad bars. Meals were dished up on trays by food service staff as students went through the line.
It was loud and chaotic sometimes, but the food service staff also tried to make it fun, especially around holidays, said Oelkers. Those festivities included food service veteran Joe Gueria, who was known for dressing up as the Grinch at Christmas.
“They call me the man,” he joked.
Now lunches are served and eaten in the classrooms as a way to support the cohort system devised to reduce the spread of the virus. Under the cohort system, the students and teacher remain as a contained group throughout the day.
Before COVID-19, the food service staff simply served up lunch without a precise focus on portion size or measuring.
That has changed under COVID-19. To keep the individually covered trays of food clean and sanitary as they make their way from the kitchen to the classroom, all elements are now carefully proportioned and packaged, said Oelkers.
Each lunch includes a protein, grain, fruit, vegetable and drink, usually milk. The food is loaded onto individual trays with specific areas for each type of food. That day, pizza was the main course, and it managed to fit snugly in the space provided. The meal also included peas and carrots and pineapple, and a special treat.
Everything else is counted too — the napkins, the utensils and drinks, and on this day, a cup of pudding topped with sprinkles.
The kids love sprinkles, said Oelkers, adding that by carefully parceling out potions, the school is seeing less waste this year — one benefit of the pandemic.
“We count all day. It’s worth it. The kids are worth it,” said Oelkers.
At the same time, the kids had more selection prior to the new pandemic protocol, said Gueria.
Montana City School bought 28 new carts, one for each classroom, and these are loaded up with the number of lunches specified each day from a roster submitted by teachers to the food service staff. The carts also include the counted out napkins, utensils, drinks and treats.
During lunch, the carts are wheeled to the individual classrooms.
“The kids are excited for us to come,” said Oelkers.
The staff prepares close to 500 meals a day and the school is also serving more breakfasts due to additional COVID-19 relief funds. This school year, students can opt to have a free school breakfast and lunch, courtesy of COVID-19 relief funds.
And when the carts are wheeled out, all piled high with covered plastic lunch trays and supplies, it’s time for the school support staff to swing into action.
Before, teachers got a break when their students went to the cafeteria for lunch. Now, under the cohort system, the teachers are relieved from their duties during the classroom-based meal time. Helping with that effort is the support staff.
Jordan Beasley is the head of maintenance for the school. He takes a half hour out of his day to keep an eye on a classroom while the teacher gets a break. The lights are dimmed in the room and the students watch a video as they eat.
In addition to helping with lunch, Beasley had to make some changes to the way he did his job. One of the first things Beasley targeted were the individual classrooms.
“We basically gutted every room,” he said.
Beasley stripped each room of all extraneous objects and pieces of furniture that would get in the way of creating a space where the teacher could address his or her class without a mask while remaining socially distant. It also allowed the desks to be spread out to further the social distancing effort.
“No more groups, no more pods,” he said.
Beasley installed a hand sanitizing station at each door so students could use it when leaving and entering the room. He and his crew also had to figure out how to clean all the high touch areas of the classroom. Since there are so many, Beasley switched from a chemical-based cleaner to a citrus-based one to be ecologically friendly, as well as being just as effective. The hand sanitizer remains alcohol-based, he said.
The school hired an additional daytime custodian to augment the regular after hours cleaning staff. Teachers also sanitize their rooms during the day.
“Sanitizing is a non-stop issue,” he said, but added that thoughts of cleaning didn’t keep him up at night.
What’s been stressful is having to constantly remind students to put their masks on correctly, plus everyone — with their many different personalities — are also more on edge due to the pandemic.
“It’s a relational business,” said Beasley, of working at the school.
One novel idea Beasley came up with was flushing the school with fresh air in the morning and the evening for three hours each day to increase ventilation. Beasley worked with the boiler company’s software to make that happen. He also encourages teachers to crack their windows, weather permitting, to get as much fresh air into the school as possible.
Beasley looks forward to getting back to having a main lunchroom, where he also used to help out. After all, he took the job because he’s passionate about people.
“It was fun having everyone together,” he said.
School nurse Kristen Lamping has also added watching a classroom lunch period to her schedule.
Because of COVID-19, Lamping said her entire job has changed. She now goes to the classroom to administer medicine and assess students, rather than having them come to her office. She tracks those students whose parents have called to say they are not feeling well and sends a weekly report to the Jefferson County Public Health Department to keep tabs on possible trends. She also conducts all the contact tracing for the school. As for how much time that takes, “I can’t even put a number on it,” she said.
Lamping also puts a good deal of emphasis on the educational part of her job — promoting the use of masks, hand washing, sanitizing and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
And it’s those efforts that Lamping believes have significantly cut down on the incidence of other illnesses in the school, such as colds and flu. As yet, the state has not reported a confirmed case of influenza this year, Lamping said.
“It’s been interesting,” she said, adding that it’s resulted in fewer sick kids in her office this year.
Lamping’s family did contract COVID-19, despite strict adherence to wearing masks, and with everyone exhibiting different symptoms. She’s also had the vaccine, given that she’s a front line healthcare worker.
Lamping looks forward to hugging her students again and “seeing everyone’s cute little faces” — yet another casualty of pandemic and caused by mask wearing. Lamping used to take pride in knowing all her students, but the masks have made that more difficult.
Paraprofessional Katie Carsten’s new duty during the pandemic is to man the front desk during lunch, giving receptionist Denise Price a break too.
The job requires her to be aware of what’s going on in the school and Carsten employs all methods — from the school-wide intercom system to her own cell phone as the front desk is the hub for school communications.
With COVID-19, visitors to the building are now required to wait outside and announce their arrival via the intercom that alerts the front desk. Once inside, visitors are asked to fill out and sign a health screening questionnaire that asks about symptoms.
Carsten hasn’t worried about contracting COVID-19 as much as she thought she would.
“It’s because we’re doing all the right things, everything within our power,” she said of prevention measures.
“We work with kids, and we don’t want to work at home. So we take it seriously,” she said.