Bend-La Pine school lunches will look familiar this year.
Baked ziti, popcorn chicken, cheesy breadsticks, and the usual are back on the menu.
But it’s the school lunch setting that many parents have a beef with.
Because this year the playground will be the cafeteria and children will eat outside as long as the fickle Central Oregon weather permits.
“It’s outrageous,” said Leanna Olson, the mother of a first-grader at Ponderosa Elementary.
The move is a necessary safety measure, the district believes, due to the continued spread of COVID in the community.
“Given the opportunity to have it outside, it reduces the amount of kids that are enclosed in one area. Even though we would space them out six feet apart,” said Skip Offenhauser, Bend-La Pine’s executive director of elementary programs.
Last year, the district allowed students to eat lunch in their classrooms.
Oregon Department of Education officials say the decision on where kids eat lunch is 100% up to the school district.
The ODE has only asked districts statewide to “consider” holding some activities outside – such as meals – when reasonable.
Some parents compare the situation to the state’s mask mandates, which allow you to eat indoors at restaurants.
“You can go into a restaurant and sit down at a table and take your mask off, but you’re going to keep my child outside sitting on the ground?” Olson said.
(Kids 12 and under, however, have not had a chance to be vaccinated.)
Jen Kircher is a mother of two students at Silver Rail Elementary. She disagrees with the plan and doesn’t believe kids should have to eat on the ground on the playground.
“They have plans in place already they said if the weather is bad,” she said. “Just go with those plans that are already in place and allow our children to eat inside.”
Meanwhile, a Facebook parent group that’s been critical of the district’s other COVID-related policies has railed against the plan, calling for the firing of school board members and the superintendent.
One of the parents posted screenshots from an email she said she got from Superintendent Dr. Steven Cook who explains the plan and says students likely wouldn’t eat outside in 40-degree weather.
The post prompted one commenter to reply “Tar and Feather time.”
Another said “In sane!!!! Not my child!”
Late Friday Cook sent an e-mail to Central Oregon Daily News reiterating the outdoor lunch plan was the safest option for students and the district won’t make the kids eat outside in sub-freezing temperatures as some parents have suggested.
“We have not set a hard temperature for what would indicate inclement weather yet, as a 45-degree day with sun and no wind is a much different day than 45 degrees, with clouds and high winds,” he said. “However, I would still estimate that it would be a challenge to eat outside most days when it’s in the low 40s under any conditions. Additionally, no student will be forced to sit on the ground or blacktop that doesn’t want to.”
Some teachers are presenting the plan as an opportunity, telling kids during orientation they “get to” eat outside like a picnic.
That might be fine in the final days of summer, but some parents are worried about their childrens’ comfort during Bend’s chilly winters.
“If it was really about health and safety, we would have a set temperature of 40 or 45 degrees and they would be inside,” Kirchner said.