BARRINGTON, R.I. (WPRI) ─ Kids in some Rhode Island school districts are being told to keep their voices down at lunch in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Parents from Barrington, North Providence, North Kingstown and Bristol-Warren told 12 News the practice was being employed at district schools. During what’s sometimes called a “silent lunch,” students are asked to either chat quietly or refrain from talking altogether. In one email to parents, the principal of a North Kingstown elementary school said, “…It is not meant to be a punishment but rather to keep [children] safe.”
Barrington’s superintendent explained in an email to parents that the idea is based on a recommendation from Dr. Erin Bromage, an associate professor of biology at UMass Dartmouth whose COVID-19 expertise has been widely cited.
“We are aware of the importance of socialization for our students,” the email reads. “As such, we have increased opportunities for outdoor breaks where students may socialize in a much safer environment. We recognize and value the social and emotional well-being needs of students and staff and must balance them with physical safety.”
12 News reached out to Bromage to learn more about the science behind the practice.
“The difference between breathing and talking is about 75-fold in regards to respiratory emissions, like the droplets and small aerosols that come out,” he explained. “So a silent lunch, where you take away the interactions of walking down hallways and mixing pods, actually becomes a safer option than moving the kids.”
Dr. James McDonald, medical director at the Rhode Island Department of Health, said the state has not explicitly told school districts to have silent lunches.
“I think what’s happening is, people are interpreting other guidance we’re giving them,” he said. “I’m not aware of us saying you can’t talk at lunch.”
McDonald echoed Bromage in saying that talking can more easily spread viral particles, especially while kids have their masks off to eat.
“That’s why the silent snack might be an intervention that some schools might choose to do,” he said. “No school is required to do that ─ that’s up to them.”
To those concerned that the practice is unfair or harmful to kids, Bromage said it’s about safety.
“I think that kids can adjust to a 5-to-10 minute silent lunch and then have the appropriate time outdoors for recess to be kids, to run around and have fun,” he said.
Bromage said allowing students to eat outside is better and would allow them to speak freely to one another so long as they are socially distanced.
Pete Janhunen, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Education, said the practice is not part of its guidance to schools, adding, “If a school feels this is a way to add a layer of safety we would completely understand.”