BRADLEY — Just about one year after Bradley school administrators drove around delivering meals to students’ homes in response to the sudden COVID-19 shutdown, students are finally eating lunch at school again.
Starting March 8, Bradley Elementary School District 61 added an hour and 45 minutes to the school day, which now includes in-school lunch periods for the first time since before the pandemic.
The lunchroom setting is not quite the same as before — instead of kids sitting shoulder to shoulder and trading snacks with friends, they sit in carefully organized spaces set up for social distancing.
The district is still distributing free grab-and-go meals for the week on Mondays for remote learners.
More students transitioned from remote to in-person learning as the district entered its third trimester.
Currently, there are 41 remote students at Bradley East (down from 89 in the second trimester), 42 remote students at Bradley West (down from 75) and 32 remote students at Bradley Central (down from 49).
Superintendent Scott Goselin said the district is planning for regular school days next school year and awaiting official guidance as to whether a remote learning option would still be recommended.
With the recent extension, days are now five hours and 45 minutes.
In total, about 41 percent of district employees received the COVID-19 vaccine when provided through the Kankakee County Health Department. The district vaccinated 49 percent of teachers (58 total) and 35 percent of non-certified staff (40 total).
Figuring out lunch
One of the hurdles schools have faced in extending days has been figuring out socially distanced lunch periods with limited space.
At Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School, where days were also lengthened at the start of the semester, lunches are still served as grab-and-go after school.
Recently updated guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois Department of Public Health reduced the required social distance in schools from 6 feet to between 3 and 6 feet; however, when masks are removed in limited situations, such as during lunch, 6 feet is still the standard.
At Bradley Central, lunch tables were removed from the cafeteria and replaced with desks to make it easier to distance students. Some lunch tables were brought to the south gym as well where additional students can spread out during lunch.
Principal Mark Kohl said the goal was to distance students using larger spaces rather than having kids eat in classrooms.
The school also purchased room dividers so the two lunch spaces could be separated into four, with about 35 students per space. Three half-hour lunch periods go from about 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.
All three schools are also cleaning tables between lunch times.
“The kids are excited to have that time to eat here at school,” Kohl said. “It was a lot of planning on the back end, but once we got going, it was nice to see it be successful.”
Kohl noted it was hard to believe it has been a year since the principals drove around delivering meals to students.
“That was a really rewarding experience,” he recalled. “Right now, bottom line, there’s no such thing as a good plan. Any plan is going to have issues and challenges, but we’re doing our best with what we can do.”
Bradley West Principal Trisha Anderson said the school has been playing movies or giving activities to keep students entertained during lunch.
Students still talk during lunch, but with everyone sitting 6 feet apart and facing the same direction, it’s not the same social period it usually is.
Students are divided into the cafeteria and multipurpose room, with no more than 50 in a space. Students alternate shifts of lunch and recess.
“I think they were more ecstatic about going out for recess than anything else,” Anderson said.
She noted that students can take mask breaks while outside at recess if they are 6 feet apart, though they must wear them while on playground equipment.
However, she has noticed most students running around and playing without bothering to remove their masks, probably because wearing them has become second nature.
“They are just happy to be out there and playing and getting to use the playground,” she said.
Bradley East Principal Anna Kirchner said the school normally would have three half-hour lunch periods; now, lunch is spread out to seven 20-minute periods from 10:50 a.m. to 1:10 p.m. Students also have 20-minute recess periods after lunch.
Despite the shorter time, Kirchner said there are less distractions with social distancing in place and fewer students in the cafeteria.
“They are able to use their time to eat, and they are motivated to get out to recess too because they haven’t had recess all year long,” she said.
Kirchner noted that kindergarteners have been especially excited, as they are attending recess for the first time.
She also said students have been great at adjusting to many changes throughout this past year, which to her has felt like three years in one.
“It’s been kind of a long year, but having the students here longer is what’s best for sure, and the kids love it.”