Turned tables: six-student limit severs connections


Photo by Jack Krowczyk

Students take advantage of lunch in Querbes Hall to socialize and connect with peers.

It’s the first day of school. An anxious freshman is searching for the perfect table to sit at for lunch. He goes to each table, examining the faces of the classmates who may become his best friends for the next four years. Finally, he finds it! A table of friendly faces, awaiting his presence, leaves a seat for him. As the lunch period goes by, this beaming freshman is treated to delightful conversation; he learns the commonalities between him and his peers; he learns who he has classes and clubs and sports with; and he learns that maybe this year will be a lot easier than it first seemed, that the daunting rumors of the freshman year struggle were all a sham once the proper social circle was found. Well, what happens when this inspired underclassman is sitting at a table of seven people? The lunch monitor walks over, states the Querbes Hall mandate of “6 people per table,” and forces a satisfied student to leave this successfully developing friend group. Here comes the drama. Nobody wants to leave. The kids start fighting. They start turning against each other. They start nominating who should leave. As all this tragic chaos ensues, our poor little freshman hero is deemed the scapegoat. All give him that strained, reluctant look of guilt, claiming “It had to be done,” only to leave him in the deepest state of despair a new student could feel. Rejected, back-stabbed, and downright degraded, this innocent student is officially removed from his table, and from the best group of friends he could have possibly had. Goodbye high hopes, hello self-worthlessness. What a fantastic start to the year!
With lunchtime’s delirium expanding on this new level of COVID chaos, one question must be asked: how did this all start?
“Before the 2020 school year started, the school nurse and administration measured six-feet distances around each lunch table, which came out as approximately three people per table,” says Mr. John Fuja, dean of students.
At the beginning of last school year, with many students coming back to school indefinitely in person, it was no surprise that we were mandated with serious social-distancing strictures. Due to national CDC guidelines, Americans in any public, populated space—even with masks—were prompted to remain six feet apart. Dean Fuja made it clear that Illinois-specific guidelines made places like our school—even as a smaller private school—responsible for maintaining this low-risk separation. Even in the maturing days of arbitrary regulations in March of this year, the Illinois Department of Public Health and Illinois State Board of Education explained in a joint briefing, “Revised Public Health Guidance for Schools: Part 4—Transition Joint Guidance March 2021,” that “Cafeterias represent one of the highest-risk settings within the school…schools must consider the number of students and adults in the cafeteria during each breakfast and lunch period and ensure that all individuals maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet when eating.”
This three person limit, while necessary, was quite the burden. Many friend groups were split up and many new friendships were tarnished because of this. Luckily, by the end of the year we were granted the ability to have six people per table. While this definitely improved some of the original drama, it seemed to overcomplicate the seating arrangements as the limit was even stricter. Many students that were now without a table had no chance of finding a seat as even one person over the table limit was condemned.
Once the school year ended, and the summer of freedom dawned upon us, there was much hope for the dismissal of in-school mask wearing, social distancing, and table limiting. Tragically, just about everything stayed the same. While the school is not to blame for mask-mandates and cleaning procedures, it has taken questionable action on lunch table limits.
“My table had seven [people] and every day we had to rotate, until it got too old and some of us would just go sit somewhere else,” said a Viator Voice editor.
This year alone has had a multitude of large group and even maskless events that predominate the health concerns of the lunch room. Every day we are crowding around hallways, often with new faces each passing period. We had a massive turnout at Homecoming and the fall pep rally, which, while outside, were rowdy and free of masks and in no way socially distant in the general sense. There are almost too many events to count in which pandemic procedures have been out of practice all while still concluding in legitimately safe results.
“I do not think it is right to minimize people at a table when we are all packed together at football games, homecoming, or at Mass,” said an anonymous senior. “Not only do they not have enough tables at that for lunch but they are separating students from their friends. For the freshman especially, it is hard to make friendships when they are constantly being told to move.”
It also can’t be forgotten that Querbes Hall is an extremely COVID-friendly space. With up-to-date AC ventilation, high ceilings for greater airflow volume, and regularly opened windows and doors for steady access to natural breeze, this area is ultimately up to code with recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards. The CDC states that the mass spreading SARS-CoV-2 particles—the root cause of the virus—can be easily eliminated through the use of modern HVAC systems and even small intakes of outdoor air.
“Odds are in our favor for a big space with fresh air in Querbes,” said Mr. Steve Burks, Head of Building and Grounds.
Most importantly, it must be noted that all of these social distancing mandates are mere recommendations, allowing for some modification when necessary.
“A distance of at least 3 feet is recommended between unvaccinated students, but not required,” say the ISBE and IDPH in a more recent joint statement, “Revised Public Health Guidance For Schools: Part 5–Supporting the Full Return to In-Person Learning For All Students August 2021.”
According to students interviewed for this story, many schools, even private schools, have no restrictions on lunch seating.
“There are no regulations for how many people can sit at a lunch table at my school,” says an anonymous senior from Carmel Catholic High School.
“Nope, we did last year—it was only four but now it’s however many can fit,” says Adlai E. Stevenson High School senior Sana Arvind. “It really varies. Some tables have two people, but mine has, like, twelve.”
Some schools, such as Barrington High School, do indeed have restrictions like us, but are given general lenience to such rules when they obstruct social connection.
“At our school it is desks separated, but they let you move into like a big group circle type thing together,” says Barrington High School junior Max Miller.
The current rationalization of this issue seems to be the possibility of eating outside. While August and September made this possible, the fluctuating autumn heat and the growing winter months will make sitting outside impossible.
The solution to this pressing issue is no treacherous task. It is, in fact, an easy fix. With Querbes Hall’s many safety perks, with restrictions being merely recommended and not actually required, and with so many other Illinois schools successfully pursuing lunch periods without limit and without consequence, we think this six-person limit should be made less concrete. While it would be smart to encourage the limit of six per table as a general rule of thumb, this limit should not be mandatory. If tables of six are missing people who were regularly part of the same social circle—and have now been excluded—they should now be welcomed back. Tables should be allowed to have seven or eight kids if necessary so that friendships and bonds are once again respected. Some tables have five or fewer people and are content with that, which is great. But some tables are being restricted to a few members of the group, and with this recommended shift in limits, these kids can go back with their friends. With the world rapidly snapping back to a legitimate state of normality, why are we resisting progress in the school lunchroom?