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Eating Outside at Jefferson Middle
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By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
OCTOBER 13, 2021 – At Jefferson Middle, teachers have the option of taking their students outside for lunch.
The practice started when students returned to the classroom during the previous school year as a way to deal with the challenges of COVID. It quickly became much more – an enriching, enjoyable experience for both students and teachers.
On Tuesday Oct. 12, students in Jennifer Taylor’s class were eating at picnic tables in the picnic shelter in front of the school. When students were asked whether they like eating outside, many hands shot up.
What do they like about it?
“I like it when the weather is really nice, and there’s more space,” said sixth-grader Grace Bilot.
“I like eating outside, and I enjoy the scenery and beautiful nature,” said sixth-grader Camden Ratliff.
Taylor was delighted to be there with her students.
“I enjoy coming out in the beautiful outdoors,” Taylor said.
And she enjoys the freedom that eating outside gives the students.
“They can enjoy talking,” Taylor said.
She also thinks it’s good for the health of their eyes. From research she has done about the eyes, she has learned that “outdoor time is better for the eyesight.”
Eating outside as a positive way to deal with the challenges of COVID 19 can be traced to teacher Andrew Ronacher and the other members of his eighth-grade teaching team. When students returned to the building last school year, having students eat in the cafeteria or in classrooms presented challenges in terms of maintain proper distancing and such.
“This was born out of the pandemic,” said Jonathan Sidden, an assistant principal at Jefferson Middle.
Ronacher and other members of his team asked administrators about the possibility of taking their students outside to eat, Sidden said.
“They wanted to give kids a mask break and get them out of the classroom.”
Eating outdoors was a way to do that. In the beginning, it was just small groups of students eating in the picnic shelter.
As other teachers saw how well it worked – and how being outside could immediately reduce students’ levels of stress – more and more teachers wanted to start taking their students outside as well.
“It caught on very quickly,” Sidden said.
“The teachers really, really loved the freedom and choice for kids. They were getting some outside time.”
As more students started coming out, they added other spots for students to have lunch such as under the awning that covers the sidewalk that runs along the bus lot. If it was raining and not enough covered areas were available, teachers would simply have everyone eat in the cafeteria or classroom.
Given how well it all worked, Principal Shane O’Neal, Sidden and the other assistant principals decided during the summer to continue to offer the eating-outside option this school year.
“It has been a really great experience,” Sidden said.
It’s one of the rare instances of the positive side effects related to the pandemic, he said. If not for the pandemic, they probably wouldn’t have undertaken the project.
This school year, the majority of teachers – but not all of them – have their students eat outside at least sometimes.
“We are leaving that up to the teachers,” Sidden said.
Ronacher credits his wife, Anna, who is a teacher in Stokes County, with coming up with the idea of eating outside as a way to deal with the challenges of the pandemic.
“I get my best ideas from home,” he said.
Ronacher and his wife really appreciate the outdoors. They live on six acres in Walnut Cove. Ronacher likes to fish on lakes and in rivers and sometimes wades in the Dan River.
He is quite active in general. At school, he coaches soccer and girls’ basketball.
Even without the challenges of dealing with COVID 19 guidelines, Ronacher would have been all for having students starting to eat outside. In addition to solving some of the challenges presented by the pandemic, he liked the idea of giving them the opportunity to be outside and moving around.
“A lot of kids are not able to be outside on a regular basis,” he said. “I think it’s important for kids to be moving and active.”
When students returned to school in the classroom, having to wear a mask and other issues related to COVID 19 raised their level of stress. When students started going outside, he could often see them relax to some degree right away.
With one group of students, Ronacher said, lunch came in the middle of the period they were with him. He soon noticed that the difference between how they were before lunch and after having lunch outside was sometimes quite dramatic.
“They were more engaged,” he said.
Before students first started eating outside, he talked with everyone about what was acceptable and what was unacceptable behavior.
“You have to be clear what is OK and what is not,” he said.
Soon that wasn’t an issue, and students were good about picking up trash and taking care of the grounds in other ways.
When students are done eating, some use the remaining lunch time to walk or play such games as four square.
When students starting eating lunch in places in addition to the picnic shelter, they were offered benches and such and told they certainly weren’t required to sit on the curb or anything. Some students soon discovered the curb is exactly where they wanted to sit.
Some students also started bringing in blankets or towels that they would put on the grass.
On Tuesday, sixth-grade teacher Hunter Thomas was standing under a tree on the far side of the bus parking lot while some of his students sat on blankets on the ground.
Thomas is all for students eating outside.
“I feel like they act better out here,” Thomas said.
His students were all for eating outside as well.
“We get to have fresh air; we get to socialize,” said Ella Beal, who had packed a lunch that included salad, tangerines, and animal crackers.
“It’s pretty much like elementary school recess.”
Brittney Cruz, whose favorite animal cracker is the elephant, really likes not having to wear masks while outside.
“The sun is hitting your face,” Brittney said. “We have more time to socialize.”
Amelia Dadressan said, “We get to play around with our friends.”
While Ella, Brittney and Amelia had brought their lunches, other students had gone through the cafeteria line before heading outside.
One of them was sixth-grader Estavon Connor.
He, too, is a big fan of eating outside.
“It’s very calming,” he said. “You can relax and enjoy it.”
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