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'We need to treat lunchtime as a dangerous time for all': School says students must wear masks when chewing, swallowing food in cafeteria

Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images

A Washington state school decreed that students must wear masks in the cafeteria — while chewing and swallowing food, Jason Rantz of KTTH-AM reported.

In addition, the school district backed the mask mandate from Tacoma's Geiger Montessori School using guidance that doesn't exist, Rantz also reported — and he added that the cited guidance actually indicates students should not wear masks while eating lunch.

What are the details?

Rantz noted a portion of an email to parents from Principal Neil O'Brien outlining the policy:

Yes. Children should wear masks during lunch. They can lower it to take a bite or a drink, and raise it to chew, swallow, or talk. Our cafeteria has a fantastic airflow system and children are spaced apart AND when over a hundred of them are in one large room (the cafeteria and gym combined) we need to treat lunchtime as a dangerous time for all. Children need to continue to wear their masks during lunch.

A parent who went by the name "Michael" noted on Rantz's KTTH radio show that he reached out to the principal with concerns but never heard back. However, Michael told Rantz he did hear back from Shallae Hobbs, Tacoma Public Schools' administrator of health services.

Hobbs' email to Michael linked to documents backing up the mask-up-while-chewing-and-swallowing-food policy, but Rantz said no such guidance appears anywhere in the linked documents.

More from Rantz's report:

Hobbs claims "children are encouraged to put there [sic] mask back on when not eating or drinking as outlined in the CDC resource document outline in the K-12 Schools guidance." She even cites page 6 as the source.

But neither page 6 nor any page in the document addresses masks while chewing and swallowing. That page only suggests you provide social distancing "for all students when masks cannot be worn, such as when eating lunch." In other words, the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the exact opposite of what she claims.

Hobbs also cites the "food service and school meals section" in guidance from the CDC. Again, there's not even a mention of eating lunch. The focus is on social distancing during lunch.

She also cites local guidance from the state Department of Health.

None of the documents reference masking when chewing. It includes the same guidance from the CDC, indicating it's not feasible to wear a mask while eating lunch.

Rantz added that Hobbs also cited exemptions from a secretary of health order — except that it "explicitly says you do not have to wear a mask 'while engaged in the act of eating or drinking.'"

District walks back policy — or does it?

A Tacoma Public Schools spokesperson soon told Rantz that the school's policy went beyond what was intended and that "we won't discipline any students for not wearing their masks between bites. And this is not the guidance being used at other schools."

However, Rantz wondered if the policy was "actually changed," noting that the spokesperson "won't explain." In addition, Rantz said the principal sent a community email with updated COVID policies one day before Rantz received the district's statement saying the mask policy went too far and won't be enforced. However, Rantz said the principal's update didn't mention anything about the mask policy.

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