What School Nutrition Professionals Need to Know About COVID-19
Summary of Recent Changes
- Updated introduction language to reflect the latest information relevant to school nutrition professionals.
- Updated key prevention strategies to align with CDC’s Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools.
- Added recommendations for key prevention strategies when distributing meals to be eaten at school and distribution models for meals eaten away from school.
- Updated guidance for physical distancing (at least 6 feet) and increased ventilation where meals are eaten.
- Schools are essential to meeting the nutritional needs of children. Many students consume up to half their daily calories at school.
- Currently there is no evidence to suggest that handling or consuming food is associated with COVID-19.
- Given very low risk of transmission of COVID-19 from surfaces and shared objects, there is no need to limit food service approaches to single use items and packaged meals.
- Mealtime is a particularly risky time because masks cannot be worn while eating. Therefore, it is especially important to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet and maximize ventilation as much as possible.
- School nutrition program operators and school administrators can use this information to reduce the risk of COVID-19 among employees 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 of COVID-19 among employees, promote healthy environments and healthy business operations, and prepare for sick employees.
Schools are essential to meeting the nutritional needs of children. Many students consume up to half their daily calories at school.1 Nationwide nearly 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and nearly 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program.2 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 nutrition program operators and school administrators can use this information to reduce the risk of COVID-19 among employees preparing and serving meals, and the students, families, and other school staff who support or participate in school meals programs. Programs should visit Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools for guiding principles and guidance on prevention strategies to use when school is open. Programs should visit Modifying School Spaces During Mealtimes to Reduce Spread of COVID-19 for information on adapting school spaces for mealtimes to prevent COVID-19. Program operators can also post this checklist [PDF – 350 KB] of key COVID-19 prevention strategies in areas where meals are prepared and served.
CDC recommends the following layered prevention strategies in school settings to protect students and school staff from the virus that causes COVID-19 including:
- Promoting vaccination.
- Consistent and correct mask use.
- Physical distancing.
- Screening testing to promptly identify cases, clusters, and outbreaks.
- Handwashing and respiratory etiquette.
- Staying home when sick and getting tested.
- Contact tracing, in combination with isolation and quarantine.
- Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces.
Currently there is no evidence to suggest that handling or consuming food is associated with COVID-19. However, mealtime is a particularly risky time because masks cannot be worn while eating. Therefore, it is especially important to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet and maximize ventilation as much as possible.
Programs can place posters in highly visible places in the school like at entrances, in staff areas, and other places where they are likely to be seen that encourages staying home and isolating when sick, shows cough and sneeze etiquette, and teaches good hand hygiene practices.
School nutrition professionals can use the following prevention strategies to help lower the risk of COVID-19 exposure and spread during meal preparation and service as well as where students eat meals.
Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. People 5 years and older are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. CDC recommends everyone aged 5 years and older get vaccinated as soon as possible to help protect against COVID-19. Visit vaccines.gov to find out where school staff and their families can get vaccinated against COVID-19 in the community.
Staying home when sick or having COVID-19 symptoms is essential to keep COVID-19 infections out of schools and prevent spreading it to others. School nutrition professionals should not come to work if they are sick, and they should notify their manager or other designated COVID-19 point of contact if they become sick with COVID-19 symptoms, test positive for COVID-19, or have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 symptoms or a confirmed or suspected case. Educate employees 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.
CDC recommends screening-testing programs for students, teachers, and staff who are not fully vaccinated, particularly in areas with substantial to high community transmission levels. Schools that provide screening testing for unvaccinated students and staff should include school nutrition professionals in the testing program.
School nutrition program operators should designate a person who is responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns. This includes documenting cafeteria attendance logs daily for students, teachers, and staff to support contact tracing efforts if needed. Employees 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 of their possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace but maintain confidentiality as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
For more information on healthy business operations and promoting worker health and safety, please visit Protecting Workers: Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace.
The use of masks is one of many important prevention strategies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. CDC recommends that schools require universal indoor masking in K-12 schools for all individuals age 2 years and older, including students, teachers, staff, and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.
During meal preparation and service
School nutrition professionals should wear masks consistently and correctly during their shifts and breaks, except when eating or drinking. This includes when serving and distributing meals in the school building, for example in the cafeteria or classroom, and when distributing meals to families to be consumed away from school using drive-up, walk-up or delivery models. Students and family members should wear a mask when picking up meals to be eaten away from school.
Ensure that students wear a mask when going through the serving line in the cafeteria or when picking up a meal to eat in the classroom. Students should place their mask in their lap or around their wrist while they are eating, and put their mask back on as soon as they are finished eating.
During meal preparation and service
School nutrition program operators should plan menus, production, and food preparation schedules to allow employees to maintain physical distancing to the extent possible. For example:
- Assign one person for each task or workstation.
- 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.
Modify layouts to reduce crowding and ensure physical distancing (at least 6 feet apart) during mealtimes. If students are not spaced at least 6 feet apart with proper ventilation, this is a high-risk situation because masks are removed while eating.
- Work with school administration to stagger schedules of when meals will be distributed and where students will eat.
- Prioritize outdoor seating when possible, because the risk of transmission of COVID-19 is considerably lower when outdoors. Physical distance should be maintained when eating outdoors. Consider using other spaces for mealtimes including the gymnasium or unused spaces when eating outside is not possible.
- Avoid serving meals in spaces where 6 feet of physical distance cannot be maintained.
- Students should not eat meals in classrooms unless at least 6 feet of physical distance can be maintained, and ventilation can be improved.
- Ensure that children remain at least 6 feet apart in food service lines, including any self-serve stations, and at tables while eating.
- Use signs, tape marks, or other visual cues such as decals or colored tape on the floor to indicate where to stand while in line.
- Mark tables, desks, and chairs so that students sit at least 6 feet apart.
- Physical barriers like plastic dividers on tables should not be used as a substitute for maintaining physical distance when eating. See question 12 of the Ventilation FAQ.
Improving ventilation in kitchens, cafeterias, and other indoor areas (e.g., gym, classroom) that are being used for preparing, serving, and eating meals can reduce the number of virus particles that concentrate in the air.
During meal preparation and service
- Ensure heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are functioning optimally.
- Consider running HVAC system at maximum outside airflow for 2 hours before and after the building is occupied.
- Inspect and maintain exhaust ventilation systems in areas such as kitchens and cooking areas. Operate these systems any time these spaces are occupied. Operating them even when the specific space is not occupied will increase overall ventilation within the occupied building.
- Ventilation considerations are also important on school buses and shared vehicles that are used for meal delivery.
For more strategies to improve ventilation in buildings, please visit Ventilation in Buildings.
- Maximize fresh air flow by prioritizing outdoor serving and eating meals outside as much as possible.
- When eating meals outdoors is not possible, increase fresh outdoor air by opening windows and doors when weather conditions and the design of the facility allow. 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.
- When weather and safety conditions allow, operate all kitchen exhaust systems during mealtime to increase the effectiveness of open windows and doors in adjacent eating areas.
- Use child-safe fans to increase the effectiveness of open windows. Position fans securely and carefully in or near a window to exhaust room air to the outdoors. This will help draw fresh air into the room via other open windows and doors without generating strong room air currents.
- Decrease occupancy and adopt the use of portable HEPA air cleaners in areas where outdoor ventilation cannot be increased.
During meal preparation and service
School nutrition professionals should practice handwashing and respiratory etiquette (covering coughs and sneezes) including frequent handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when preparing and handling food.
- Staff who are preparing and handling food should wash their hands with soap and water and not use hand sanitizers.
- Key times for school nutrition employees 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 that 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.
- Employees should wear gloves when they:
- Handle used or dirty food service items.
- Remove garbage bags or handle and dispose of trash.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces; read and follow the directions on the label to ensure safe and effective use of disinfectant.
- Have a cut or open sore on their hands when handling food.
- Place touch-free trash cans in all mealtime areas and keep large garbage bags on hand to collect mealtime trash.
- If possible, use 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.
Students should wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use a hand sanitizing station before and after eating. Students should also wash hands or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol before using any self-service food and beverage stations, and after handling money, cards, or keypads.
During meal preparation and service
The risk of infection of COVID-19 from touching surfaces is low. High touch surfaces like door handles, refrigerator handles, turnstiles and chairs should be cleaned at least one time per day. Surfaces that come in contact with food, including dishes, countertops, utensils, and tables, 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.
- If shared objects (e.g., utensils, tongs) are used, continue to replace according to food safety code.
- Protect unpackaged food items from contamination by providing a barrier, such as sneeze shield.
- Clean and disinfect areas and tools used by any person who has tested positive for COVID-19, or has symptoms.
- Close off areas used by a sick person and do not use these areas until after cleaning and disinfecting.
- Wait at least 24 hours before cleaning and disinfecting. If 24 hours is not feasible, wait as long as possible.
- Ensure safe and correct use and storage of cleaning and disinfection products, including storing them securely away from children.
- Ensure food contact surfaces (e.g., lunch table) are washed, rinsed, and sanitized (using an EPA-approved food contact surface disinfectant) before and after meals.
- 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 2021–2022, potable water availability is required only when lunch is served at school, and is not required if meals are picked up to be consumed away from 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.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration Guidance on Mitigating and Preventing the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace
- FDA Food Safety and COVID-19
- FDA Best Practices for Retail Food Stores, Restaurants, and Food Pick-Up and Delivery Services During the COVID Pandemic
- CDC Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility
- CDC Healthy Schools School Meal Promotion Toolkit
- USDA Team Nutrition COVID-19 Resources external icon
- CDC Guidance for COVID-19 Prevention in K-12 Schools
- CDC School Nutrition Checklist [PDF – 350 KB]
- CDCINFO: 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) | TTY: 1-888-232-6348 |website
- Story M. The third School Nutrition Dietary Assessment Study: findings and policy implications for improving the health of US children. J Am Diet Assoc 2009;109(Suppl):S7–13.
- Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The State of Childhood Obesity. https://stateofchildhoodobesity.org/policy/school-meals/. Accessed November 3, 2021.