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CDC recommends schools continue to use the current COVID-19 prevention strategies for the 2020-2021 school year. Learn more

Guidance for What School Nutrition Professionals and Volunteers at Schools Need to Know about COVID-19

Guidance for What School Nutrition Professionals and Volunteers at Schools Need to Know about COVID-19

Summary of Recent Changes

  • Updated introduction language to reflect the latest information relevant to school nutrition professionals and volunteers
  • Added section on Guiding Principles to Keep in Mind
  • Updated and expanded guidance on Healthy Behaviors to Reduce Transmission Among Employees and Volunteers
  • Updated and expanded guidance on Healthy Environments
  • Updated and expanded guidance on Healthy Business Operations
  • Added guidance on Preparing for Sick Employees and Volunteers
  • Updated list of Additional Resources
Key Points
  • Schools are essential to meeting the nutritional needs of children. Many students consume up to half their daily calories at school.
  • School administrators and operators of school nutrition programs can use this information to reduce the risk COVID-19 among employees and volunteers preparing and serving meals, and the students, families, and other school staff who support or participate in school meals programs.
  • This document outlines strategies to encourage healthy behaviors to reduce transmission among employees and volunteers, promote healthy environments and healthy business operations, and, prepare for sick employees and volunteers.

Schools are essential to meeting the nutritional needs of children. Many students consume up to half their daily calories at school1. Nationwide nearly 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program1. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, school nutrition programs have developed innovative ways to ensure that in-person, virtual, and hybrid learners continue to have access to nutritious meals.

School administrators and operators of school nutrition programs can use this information to reduce the risk of COVID-19 among employees and volunteers preparing and serving meals, and the students, families, and other school staff who support or participate in school meals programs. Programs should visit Operating schools during COVID-19: CDC’s Considerations for guiding principles and guidance on prevention strategies to use when school is open, and Strategies for Protecting K-12 School Staff from COVID-19 for additional information on protecting the health and safety of K-12 school staff.

Guiding Principles to Keep in Mind

Generally, the more a person interacts with others, and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread. School nutrition professionals and volunteers working in schools or other public settings, could be exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 if they are in close contact (within 6 feet for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period) with someone infected with COVID-19, such as co-workers, school staff or volunteers, students, or families of students that are picking up school meals.

Additionally, respiratory droplets from someone who has COVID-19 can carry the virus that causes COVID-19 and stay in the air and land on surfaces. For transmission from surfaces to occur, a person must touch a contaminated surface (for example, something that has been coughed or sneezed on by an infected person), and then touch their own mouth, nose, or eyes.

Fortunately, there are a number of actions that operators of school nutrition programs can take to help lower the risk of COVID-19 exposure and spread. Personal prevention practices (such as handwashingstaying home when sick), consistent and correct use of masks, avoiding crowds and staying 6 feet away from others, and cleaning to maintain healthy environments, are important ways of preventing the spread of COVID-19. Currently there is no evidence to suggest that handling or consuming food is associated with COVID-19.

Programs should visit Safely Distributing School Meals during COVID-19 for more detailed information on COVID-19-adapted school meal serving models, and Modifying School Spaces During Mealtimes to Reduce Spread of COVID-19 for information on adapting school spaces for mealtimes to prevent COVID-19. Finally, for more detailed prevention strategies in food service environments, programs can reference Considerations for Restaurants and Bars.

Healthy Behaviors to Reduce Transmission Among Employees and Volunteers
  • Educate employees and volunteers about when they should stay home after they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 (quarantine) or stay home when they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (isolate), and when they can return to work.
  • Employees and volunteers should isolate if they have
    • Tested positive for COVID-19
    • Symptoms of COVID-19
  • Employees and volunteers should quarantine if they have
    • Recently had a close contact with a person with confirmed or suspected COVID-19
  • Recognize symptoms. Consider conducting daily in-person or virtual health checks (e.g., symptom and temperature screening) of staff and volunteers safely and respectfully, and in accordance with any applicable privacy laws and regulations. Refer to CDC’s General Business FAQs question: Should we be screening employees for COVID-19 symptoms (such as temperature checks)? What is the best way to do that? as a guide.
  • Provide employees and volunteers with accurate information about COVID-19, and risk of exposure at work and in the community.
  • Teach and reinforce the consistent and correct use of masks. The use of masks is one of many important prevention strategies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Masks offer some protection to the wearer and also protect others if the wearer is infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.
  • Consistent and correct use of masks is especially important indoors and when physical distancing is difficult to implement or maintain. Masks should fit snugly against the face. People should be frequently reminded not to touch the mask.  Information should be provided to staff, students, and students’ families on proper use, removal, and washing of masks.
  • Masks should not be placed on:
    • Children younger than 2 years old
    • Anyone who has trouble breathing
    • Anyone who is incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance or is unconscious
  • Consistent and correct use of masks may be challenging for some students, teachers, and staff, including:
    • Younger students, such as those in early elementary school (Pre-K through 3rd grade).
    • Students, teachers, and staff with severe asthma or other breathing difficulties.
    • Students, teachers, and staff with special educational or healthcare needs, including intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health conditions, and sensory concerns or tactile sensitivity.
    • For mask adaptations or alternatives, please visit COVID-19: Considerations for Wearing Masks
  • Hand Hygiene and Respiratory Etiquette
    • Require frequent employee and volunteer handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or to use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
    • Staff who are preparing food should wash their hands with soap and water and not use hand sanitizers.
    • Key times for employees and volunteers to clean their hands include:
      • Before and after work shifts
      • Before and after work breaks
      • After using the restroom
      • Before eating, preparing, or serving food
      • Before putting on and after taking off disposable gloves when preparing food
      • After touching objects with bare hands which have been handled by other staff, students, customers, or visitors; such as tables, trays, carts, racks, dishes, cups, utensils, bags, coolers, totes, and trash
      • After blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing
      • After putting on, touching, or removing masks
    • Ensure gloves are worn by employees and volunteers when they are completing these activities:
      • Handling used or dirty food service items
      • Removing garbage bags or handling and disposing of trash
      • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces; read and follow the directions on the label to ensure safe and effective use of disinfectant
      • Has a cut or open sore on their hands when handling food
  • Include messages (for example, videos) about behaviors that prevent spread of COVID-19 when communicating with vendors, staff, students, and parents (such as on school websites, in emails, and on social media accounts).
Healthy Environments
  • Clean frequently touched surfaces, such as refrigerator handles, door handles, carts, trays, chairs, and turnstiles between use or as much as possible.
  • Surfaces that come in contact with food should be washed, rinsed, and sanitized (using an Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]-approved disinfectant for use on surfaces that are in contact with food) before and after meals.
    • To find EPA-approved disinfectants for use on surfaces that are in contact with food, visit EPA’s List N Tool: COVID-19 Disinfectants. Select “Surface Types” and filter down options for desired surface. Follow CDC’s recommendations to reduce the chance of someone with asthma from having an asthma attack while disinfecting.
  • Conduct frequent cleaning of entrances, employee break rooms, rest areas, and other common areas or vehicles, focusing on surfaces and objects that are touched by multiple people.
  • Place posters and checklists in the school, at entrances, in staff areas, and other places where they are likely to be seen that encourage staying home and isolating when sick, performing cough and sneeze etiquette, and performing good hand hygiene.
  • Provide employees with access to soap, clean running water, and materials for drying their hands, and provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol at stations around the establishment for use by both students and staff.
  • Provide tissues and no-touch disposal receptacles for use by staff, volunteers, and students.
  • Prioritize outdoor serving and seating models as much as possible.
  • Offer drive-through, walk up, wheel-through, or delivery options as applicable.
  • As feasible, have children eat meals in classrooms or outdoors, while maintaining physical distance as much as possible, instead of in a communal dining hall or cafeteria.
  • Work with school administration, custodial or maintenance staff, and the transportation department to plan and implement engineering controls to improve airflow and ventilation.
  • Increase ventilation in communal dining halls or cafeterias, and other indoor areas (e.g., gym, classroom) being used for mealtimes.
    • When weather conditions and the design of the facility allow, increase fresh outdoor air by opening windows and doors. Do not open windows and doors if doing so poses a safety or health risk (e.g., risk of falling, triggering asthma symptoms) to children using the facility.
    • Use child-safe fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows. Position fans securely and carefully in or near a window to help draw fresh air into the room via other open windows and doors without generating strong room air currents. Point fans away from people. Pointing fans toward people can possibly cause contaminated air to flow directly at them.
    • Consider running the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system at maximum outside airflow for 2 hours before and after the building is occupied.
    • Decrease occupancy in areas where outdoor ventilation cannot be increased.
    • Ventilation considerations are also important on school buses and shared vehicles that are used for meal delivery. To clean school buses or other shared vehicles, see guidance for bus transit operators.
  • Consider using ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) as a supplemental treatment to inactivate SARS-CoV-2, especially if options for increasing room ventilation and filtration are limited. Upper-room UVGI systems can be used to provide air cleaning within occupied spaces, and in-duct UVGI systems can help enhance air cleaning inside central ventilation systems.
  • Institute measures to physically separate or increase distance between employees, volunteers, other coworkers, students, and their families.
  • Plan menus, production, and food preparation schedules to allow employees and volunteers to maintain the recommended distance of at least 6 feet apart from others, when possible.
  • Consider using physical barriers in high-traffic areas where it is difficult for people to remain at least 6 feet apart (e.g., cash registers, workstations, food pickup areas).
    • If used, physical barriers should be cleaned after use.
  • Use signs, tape marks, or other visual cues such as decals or colored tape on the floor, placed at least 6-feet apart in the kitchen, food service, and food delivery points to indicate where to stand.
  • Assign one person for each task or workstation, as feasible.
  • Limit the number of staff accessing storage areas or large equipment, like refrigerators.
  • Consider having multiple meal service points to facilitate physical distancing and reduce crowding among students and staff picking up food. For instance, if serving meals out of a cafeteria that is limited on space, consider also using tables or rolling kiosks to offer meals in a nearby area, like the hallway.
  • If communal dining halls or cafeterias will be used for meals that will be eaten at school:
    • Work with school administration to stagger schedules of when meals will be distributed and students will eat.
    • Ensure that children remain at least 6 feet apart in food service lines and at tables while eating.
    • Wash, rinse, and sanitize tables between use (using an Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]-approved disinfectant for use on surfaces that are in contact with food) before and after.
  • Continue serving grab-and-go and/or individually plated meals.
    • Grab-and-go meals are picked up from a conveniently located table, cart, or kiosk and eaten in another location. For in-person learners, this could be a classroom or other common area, like the gym, cafeteria, or outdoor seating area. For virtual and hybrid learners, meals are picked up and eaten away from school.
    • For individually plated meals,
      • Identify one staff member per service station to serve food so that multiple staff are not handling serving utensils.
      • Ensure adequate supplies for staff to minimize sharing of items that are frequently touched (e.g., serving spoons) to the extent possible.
      • If shared objects (e.g., utensils, tongs) are used, continue to replace according to standard food safety code.
      • Protect unpackaged food items from contamination by providing barrier, such as sneeze shield
  • Consider altering self-service stations, where applicable, to have food service staff build meals (e.g., sandwiches, salads) instead of students.
    • State and local public health departments may determine whether it is safe to open traditional self-service food and drink options. These determinations are typically made based on what is happening in the local community, including factors such as the community levels of COVID-19.
  • If traditional self-serve stations such as hot and cold food bars, salad or condiment bars are offered:
    • Require students and staff to wear a mask over the nose and mouth when waiting in line and when serving themselves food.
    • Provide handwashing stations or hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol and encourage use before use of self-service station.
    • Encourage students and staff remain at least 6 feet apart while waiting in line by providing physical guidance and visual cues, such as tape or graphics on floors or sidewalks and signs on walls.
    • If shared objects (e.g., utensils, tongs) are used, continue to replace according to food safety code.
    • Ensure that used or dirty non-disposable food service items are handled with gloves and washed, rinsed, and sanitized to meet food safety requirements. Employees and volunteers should wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after removing their gloves or after handling used or dirty food service items.
    • Protect unpackaged food items from contamination by providing barrier, such as sneeze shield.
  • School meal programs include a requirement that potable drinking water is made available at no charge to students wherever lunch is served, and when breakfast is served in the cafeteria. In school year 2020-2021, potable water availability is required when lunch is served at school. Schools are encouraged to make potable water available in all meal service locations as safety permits.
    • There are many options for ensuring students have access to drinking water at school, including providing cups in the classroom, using portable hydration stations, installing gooseneck sink adapters or water bottle filling stations, and serving individual cartons of water, bottled water, or water cups with foil lids. Follow hand hygiene and cleaning and sanitizing guidance for food contact surfaces as stated previously in this guidance.
  • Consider options for students using wheelchairs or other equipment (e.g., scooters, crutches). For example, ensure food products are stacked to a height reachable from a wheelchair in onsite pantries.
  • If possible, implement touchless methods for counting meal participation (e.g., tally sheets, barcode scanners). Provide hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol for use after handling money, cards, or keypads.
  • Ensure that meals are safely prepared, handled, and transported according to state, territorial, tribal, federal, or local food safety provisions.
    • Keep food out of the temperature danger zone (40-140 degrees F). If food needs to be prepared in advance and held prior to service, ensure proper temperature control during service period. Use coolers or insulated bags or bins to keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
    • Under state-approved non-congregate feeding and meal time waivers, program operators may implement a number of flexibilities for serving meals to virtual or hybrid students; for example, providing bulk food items that contribute to multiple meals for students and meal delivery services for students in isolation or quarantine for COVID-19.
      • Meals that will be eaten away from school should include food safety, storage, and reheating instructions that are easy to follow, accommodate all reading levels, and include visuals or graphics where appropriate. Also, instructions should be translated into languages commonly spoken in the community.
      • Visit Child Nutrition Programs: COVID-19 Waivers by State to find out which waivers and flexibilities have been approved in your state.
  • Learning (school) garden programs can continue to provide food and experiential nutrition education to students.
    • During the COVID-19 pandemic, outdoor school gardens help fill nutritional gaps in places where access to healthy food may be limited, provide recreation and stress reduction opportunities, and provide a lower-risk outdoor learning environment at school. CDC has developed Considerations for Outdoor Learning Gardens and Community Gardens, including school gardens, as a resource to help ensure a safe learning environment and access to healthy food, while helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.
    • The use of food harvested from school garden(s) should be in accordance with Child Nutrition regulatory agency guidelines. The risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 through food is considered very low.
Maintaining Healthy Business Operations
  • Designate a person who is responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns. Employees and volunteers should know who this person is and how to contact them if they become sick or have other concerns related to COVID-19. Employers should inform fellow employees and volunteers of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
  • Implement flexible sick leave and supportive policies and practices. Consider instituting non-punitive emergency sick leave policies if sick leave is not offered to some or all employees.
  • Employers should not require a positive COVID-19 test result or a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave, or to return to work.
  • Offer options for employees and volunteers at higher risk for severe illness (including older adults and people of all ages with certain underlying medical conditions) that limit their exposure risk (e.g., modified job responsibilities such as managing inventory rather than working as a cashier, or managing administrative needs through telework).
  • Designate a person responsible for documenting cafeteria attendance logs daily for students/teachers/staff to support contact tracing efforts if needed.
  • Maintain safe staffing levels, cross-train staff, and create a roster of trained back-up staff.
  • For more information on healthy business operations, please visit COVID-19 Guidance: Businesses and Employers.
Preparing for Sick Employees and Volunteers

For additional information on what corrective actions should be taken if a worker tests positive, visit Procedures for When a Food Worker Tests Positive for COVID-19.