London

Let kids talk during lunch, board officials tell public school teachers

The Thames Valley District School Board says kids can now talk during lunch, even if their masks are off while munching on treats.

Some kids aren't allowed to talk during lunchtime because their masks are off

A group of cheerful small school kids in a canteen, eating lunch. (Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

Kids in the public school board can now talk while eating their lunch at school.  

You'll be forgiven if you didn't know that some children had to be silent while eating their lunches and snacks, but some parents complained about the rule, which is enforced to various degrees at different schools, so the Thames Valley District School Board issued a directive last week. 

"We understand the concern that staff may have, as students are unmasked during these times in their school day," school board officials wrote to teachers on Friday.

"After consultation with both health units, who support this, we would ask that students be permitted to socialize verbally with their peers during eating portions of the day. This supports their connection and relationship building with peers and there is minimal risk during these short periods of time."

Enforcement of the no-talking-during-lunch rule varies from classroom to classroom and school to school. In some places, students are not allowed to talk at all while eating their food, while in others they're allowed to have quiet conversations with those sitting closest to them. 

"I think it's a great change," said parent Mariam Hamou, who has two kids in elementary school and who has volunteered as a lunchtime supervisor at several London schools.

'Like being punished'

"The kids need the connection, and if the local health units are on board, I don't know why we wouldn't be. In a Grade 2 classroom, they have a hard time sitting still to begin with, and asking them not to speak, they look like they're being punished."

Hamou said she would read stories to the children to take their focus off each other and onto something else while they ate. 

Other teachers put on a movie or television show to get the kids to focus on the front of the room, and not each other. 

Some teachers are concerned that COVID-19 will spread further and faster if kids are allowed to talk, said Craig Smith, who represents Thames Valley's 3,600 teachers as head of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario. 

"I think part of the frustration in all of this is that things keep changing and that causes confusion, and there's inconsistency in application," Smith said. "Whether there's science to this, I don't know. There's inconsistency from site to site and from district to district," Smith said. 

Health units on board

Kids at the region's public schools will now be allowed to talk during lunch. (gpointstudio/Shutterstock)

Thames Valley District School Board has schools within the Middlesex-London Health Unit and Southwestern Public Health boundaries. Both were consulted. 

"Public health was asked to consult and we agreed that for the short duration that children are not wearing masks, while they eat, they should be able to talk to their peers to support social connection," said a spokesperson for Southwestern Public Health. 

The school board sent the memo to teachers because chatting with peers during down times is important, said a board spokesperson. 

"The purpose of the messaging was to clarify that student conversations are permitted during lunch, and clarify any misunderstanding about whether students are allowed to speak while eating unmasked," the board said in a statement. "Socializing verbally with their peers supports student connection and relationship-building, and public health advice indicates there is minimal risk during these short periods of time."

The London District Catholic School Board hasn't put out a directive about talking during lunch, but several teachers CBC News spoke to said they don't allow children to talk while eating, because their masks are off. 

"Appropriate physical distancing is always preferred, especially when unmasked," said a Catholic school board spokesperson.

The memo to Thames Valley teachers went out after parents complained that their children were not allowed to talk during lunch and snack, but parents CBC News spoke to say they understand the challenge from both perspectives. 

Stress for teachers

"For me, the fact that he gets to go to school, he gets to see his friends, it's huge," said mom Michelle Young, who has a son in Grade 4.

"The stress, for teachers. Their job is to teach and keep kids safe, and then you threw a pandemic on top of that. These are the kids that they're charged with keeping safe, and themselves safe, so I get it. If the teachers want you to be quiet for lunch for 20 minutes while you eat your lunch, I'm okay with that." 

Parent of two Ryan Starkweather said he's not concerned about more COVID-19 cases because of the rule change. 

"There's no perfect answer," he said. "My kids have not blinked an eye about wearing masks, they don't complain about it. I don't want to jeopardize anyone's health, but the kids don't seem to spread it as much, and I think that socializing is something that the kids really need and that they really enjoy doing." 

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