It’s Crunch Time to Address Stuyvesant’s Cafeteria Problem

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The highlight of a student’s day is often his or her lunch or free periods. Especially for those with packed schedules, these breaks act as a brief respite from the school day—a time to eat lunch, socialize, or complete work. However, the only space available for students to eat inside the building is the cafeteria, where the COVID-19 risk due to the concentration of students has become a concern for many. Students, especially those who live in a multigenerational household, often feel unsafe in the cafeteria since everyone simultaneously has their masks off in a small space to eat.

The solution to this discomfort seems simple: eating lunch outside. However, this quick fix isn’t feasible for everybody and especially for low-income students who cannot afford to buy or bring lunch every day. Given the limited grab-and-go options from the cafeteria, students often have no choice but to go to the cafeteria to receive hot food. Other times, students visit teachers during their lunch period or simply do not wish to be outside for the full 41 minutes.

What would be most ideal is to be able to eat lunch outside for a portion of the period, then come back into the building. However, the current entrance and exit policy during lunch and free periods—where students can only re-enter the building five minutes before the end of the period—often forces students to choose between staying inside or leaving the building. Students should instead be able to enter and exit the building at any time of the period. Providing students with this freedom during their free periods will not only give those who feel unsafe in the cafeteria the option to eat outside, but also provide students the flexibility to use the time to their advantage on what they choose to do.

Currently, during the start and end of lunch periods, the second floor entrance is completely congested with countless students trying to leave or re-enter the building. Allowing students to swipe in and out at any time eases these crowds, mitigating the potential spread of COVID, rather than having students wait in a cramped entryway by the bridge; this would reduce congestion at the scanners. The current dual-laned entrance system also easily allows for a smooth method of scanning in and out, with one lane dedicated to students leaving and the other for students coming back in. Additionally, with more students going outside, there are fewer students in the cafeteria during lunch, ensuring a safer experience for those who choose to eat in the building. Right now, there is a precedent for this during ninth and 10th periods, when students are permitted to enter and exit freely.

For those who choose not to eat outside for lunch, the only presently permissible option is to eat in the cafeteria, since other open spaces within the building, such as hallways and atriums, are plastered with “NO EATING” signs. Considering the concentrated mass of students, lack of social distancing, and cramped seating areas though, the cafeteria is often not a desirable option. Thus, students typically seek out secluded hallways or eat covertly when adults are not nearby. Students should be able to safely enjoy their lunch periods while not constantly fearing repercussions for breaking the rules. Designating open spaces for eating, such as the sophomore and senior bars, half floor, or second and third floor atriums, is a way to expand options and mitigate congestion. These spaces tend to be more secluded, so eating without a mask there would have a lesser impact than eating in the packed cafeteria. At the same time, this change requires cooperation from students as well. If these areas are to be open for eating, it is imperative that students responsibility clean up after themselves.

Another potential fix to lunch options in the cafeteria is to expand grab-and-go options for students who want to eat school lunch, but elsewhere, perhaps outside. The cafeteria currently offers the same easily transportable sandwich options daily. However, hot foods could also be added as a grab-and-go option to encourage students who want to avoid the cafeteria to eat lunch.

At this point, many students have found ways around eating in the cafeteria or simply forgoing lunch altogether. While students are already risking themselves by attending school in-person, any extraneous risks should be reduced, especially when eating.