FARGO — The lunchroom experience at Ed Clapp Elementary School in south Fargo has changed drastically due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Masked students walk up to the lunch line in smaller groups, making sure they are 6 feet apart from each other. They sit three to a table that can easily fit six under normal circumstances.

Apart from serving food in the cafeteria, staff have to prepare lunches for students learning from home.

It’s why North Dakota Superintendent Kirsten Baesler is praising school cooks.

North Dakota K-12 Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, left, visits with Bridgette Startz, Pat Tofte and Emily Wilburs as they prepare lunch on Monday, Sept. 15, at Ed Clapp Elementary in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum
North Dakota K-12 Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, left, visits with Bridgette Startz, Pat Tofte and Emily Wilburs as they prepare lunch on Monday, Sept. 15, at Ed Clapp Elementary in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum

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"Our food service people are heroes," Baesler said Monday, Sept. 14, as she visited Ed Clapp to see how staff are preparing meals amid the pandemic. “They have adjusted on the fly.”

It’s the first time Baesler, the state's head of K-12 education, has visited a cafeteria since the school year began. Typically, she tries to go to as many districts as she can in a year, and she plans to visit more this year, she said.

The Fargo School District has taken a variety of measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus in schools, Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said. That includes added protocols for preparing food.

Administrators worked with Fargo-Cass Public Health to develop consistent plans for its schools, though staff in each building can add protocols based on individual needs, Gandhi said. “Nutrition and safety is paramount to us as a school district,” he said.

Social distancing, limiting common-touch surfaces and preparing meals both for in-school and at-home students have presented the toughest challenges for Fargo Public Schools, said Cindy Hogenson, the district's nutrition services director. Staff have had to limit menu choices, rearrange service lines and put food into bags or containers for safety reasons.

“We’re so used to trying to give students choices and building their independence by serving themselves,” she said. “It’s been a real turnaround for us to take all of that away now and go back to that old cafeteria style where we fill their plate and hand it to them.”

For students eating at school, dining rooms have been cut in half to keep children at least 6 feet apart. That also means spreading the serving window for lunch out longer so students can be brought in smaller groups, Hogenson said.

“Some kids are waiting till later in the day to eat. Some kids are eating a little earlier than they normally would, so the time is a little off,” Hogenson said. “Some schools are choosing to send their kids back to the classroom,” with their lunches.

Despite all of the changes, Baesler said she noticed staff are happily preparing food for children. “COVID-19 isn’t going to dampen the spirit of the people who serve our children,” she said.

Baesler said she was proud of students complying with rules to wear masks, maintain social distancing guidelines and do whatever they can to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Gandhi said he wasn’t surprised that children in his district are respectful and follow the rules.

“Kids will always rise to any occasion,” he said.