The school said approximately 100 students eat in the tent during each lunch period.

By: KDKA-TV’s Erika Stanish

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — School lunches look a little different this year at a charter school in Pittsburgh.

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Students at Environmental Charter School on South Braddock Avenue are eating their lunches outside in tents as a way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, according to the primary school.

James Doyle, the chief operating officer at ECS, said students have been eating outside since the third week of school.

“As part of our early on COVID mitigation and when we opened our school fully to students, because last year, we actually had about half capacity and buildings, we identified specific strategies that would allow us to safely and securely have students participating in learning activities but then also lunch,” Doyle said.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

Recently, Doyle said the school purchased a 26-by-40 foot tent that will help withstand harsher temperatures as winter nears.

“The goal with the larger tent that has the sides, the airflow is still 100 percent. You’re getting air all throughout it, but we can have all of our students at the same time outside, which just makes it a much more conducive space,” Doyle said.

Doyle said outdoor education is part of the core of its academic curriculum and said eating lunch outside adds to the school’s mission.

“In this building that we’re in right now, we’re right next to Frick Park. We get our students outside each and every day. So this is a perfect, perfect way to complement what we already do day in and day out,” Doyle said.

But some parents have concerns as the temperature continues to drop and question how eating in a tent is any safer than inside the cafeteria.

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“If the whole idea is to be like COVID cautious, once you put a tent up and put heaters on, then shouldn’t the kids just be inside at that point in time? Because I mean, heating up an enclosed space like that for children to eat, I think kind of creates like a Petri dish of germs instead,” a parent who did not want to be identified said.

The district said it has two 1,500-watt electric stand heaters that will go in the tents once it gets colder outside.

“By square footage, this is sufficient and still can be operated safely with students in the tent,” said Deana Callipare, a spokesperson for ECS.

In an email sent to parents this week, the school reported the heaters are not installed yet and asked that students remembered to bring a jacket to school.

Doyle said approximately 100 students eat in the tent during each lunch period.

“I’m sending my kids to school. I’m not sending them out skiing. Why do I need to put an extra layer of clothing on my child for them to be able to eat lunch outside?” a parent said.

In a statement sent to KDKA, Callipare said, “ECS plans to continue this mitigation effort as long as possible, weather permitting.”

KDKA asked the school if it had a temperature limit to when it would have students eat inside. Doyle said he plans to monitor the temperatures and play it by ear.

“If it feels too cold or if it gets a little too chilly, we won’t have our students outside. But it’s ultimately going to be kind of working on it as we go,” Doyle said. “I think it’ll be kind of just feeling it and seeing what the heaters are able to do. And if not, bring it back inside.”

“I was really excited to hear that they made this plan in order to keep our kids as safe as possible during this time and be able to give them good airflow and have the outside,” parent Maya Haptas said.

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“We will make sure that the space is safe, the space is warm, and the space is inviting for our kids to be able to eat lunch safely,” Doyle said.