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Surviving Flu Season in Schools: A Teacher's Guide

Patrick Boshell
October 31, 2017



As halls and classrooms flood with students and staff, a clean school can quickly transform into a breeding ground for bacteria. Whether students are sharing markers in art class or passing basketballs in the gymnasium, children’s hands pick up dangerous germs that can spread the flu, colds and other diseases. This can lead to school outbreaks and frequent absenteeism, negatively affecting student performance and a school’s reputation. 


In fact, Canada holds one of the highest school-absence rates in the world, according to a new study[1], making it crucial for teachers, school staff and parents to take the necessary steps in limiting germ transmission.


How can schools, parents and teachers create a cleaner, safer learning space for children? The simple answer is clean hands. The Public Health Agency of Canada  claims hand washing is the most effective way to protect yourself from and prevent the spread of numerous infectious diseases. Hands, big or small, are responsible for spreading 80 percent of all common infectious diseases, so it’s essential to teach children how to wash their hands properly. Having effective and accessible soaps and sanitizers at school is equally as important in combating the issue.


At school, it can be difficult for teachers and staff to keep tabs on every student and know when everyone last washed their hands without a proper hand hygiene compliance program in place. To limit germs and keep students healthy and happy, school staff must understand which surfaces are most susceptible to germs and how to implement a hand hygiene program.


Hidden Germs


Unlike students playing a friendly game of hide-and-seek, germs are often impossible to spot, even when they’re right out in the open. A study[2] by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) International, measured the number of aerobic bacteria per inch on common school surfaces. The results revealed the top germiest places in school, including:


#1 Water fountains – Over 2.7 million bacteria were found on a water fountain’s spigot, making it an extremely dangerous hotspot for germs.


#2 Cafeteria trays and plates – NSF found 33,800 bacteria on cafeteria trays and cafeteria plates harbored over 15,000 germs.


#3 Water faucets – The cold water faucet (32,000) held nearly double the amount of germs compared to the hot water faucet (18,000).


#4 Computer keyboards – Computer keyboards proved bacteria-filled with a count of 3,300.


#5 Toilet seats – Bathroom toilet seats had around 2,300 bacteria, 14 times less than cafeteria trays.


Another place germs like to hide are on teacher’s phones. The most bacteria per square inch found after testing more than 600 surfaces from multiple workplaces was on the surfaces commonly used by teachers, including their phones, keyboards and desktops.[3]


Perhaps the most shocking find is that the average student’s hand holds 1,500 germs. When one student catches a cold, the flu or something worse, it’s easy for those germs to spread at any point throughout the school day, infecting other students and staff. Without frequent handwashing, students are at a constant risk of catching and spreading illnesses.


Erasing Germs


In order for students to understand the importance of hand hygiene, it’s important to make it fun. After all, a recent study found that hand hygiene could be significantly improved when students follow CDC handwashing guidelines.


To teach students how to erase germs from their hands, remind them to wash their hands before and or after:


  • Preparing and eating food – When it comes to lunchtime, some students run straight from the playground, still covered in monkey-bar and tire-swing germs and dive straight into their lunch. To ensure students keep their healthy meal healthy, enforce a regularly scheduled stop at the restrooms to have students wash hands before and after eating.


  • Using the toilet – Whether its peer influence or sheer forgetfulness, many students walk out of the restroom without washing or drying their hands properly. To remind students, schools can put up fun, informational posters on stall doors and mirrors to encourage hand hygiene.


  • Coughing or sneezing – When one student comes down with the flu or a cold, it can quickly spread through shared pencils, food or high touch surfaces like desks and door knobs. If a student can’t wash his or her hands every time they cough or sneeze, make sure hand sanitizer is easily accessible and used until the student can rinse hands with soap and water.


  • Feeding or touching animals – Whether it’s a classroom pet or a show-and-tell highlight, all students should wash their hands after touching or feeding any animals to limit the transfer of dangerous germs like E. coli.


  • Handling garbage – Classroom projects, snack time and other events throughout the day can be messy and result in a heap of garbage. For students handling germy garbage, ensure proper hand washing takes place before moving on to the next activity.


Teachers and parents can encourage children to engage in regular handwashing by making it a habit and making it fun. Some simple ways to remember how to properly wash hands include:


  • Scrubbing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. Children can easily remember this rule by learning to sing a song in their head that lasts 20 seconds as they scrub and rinse their hands. For example, if students sing the Happy Birthday song twice, they have washed their hands for the required time.


  • Rinsing hands under clean, running water. Make sure students understand that soap should completely cover hands, fingers and under their finger nails, and then must be completely rinsed off.


  • Drying hands with a clean towel. Air dryers don’t often dry hands completely, and germs can transfer more easily and quickly through water, making paper towels a more hygienic choice. When students use paper towels, they can also use the towel to open up the restroom door, ensuring no germs come in contact with their freshly washed hands.


Safety First


For those who work or live with children, the worry that hand sanitizers could become a dangerous hazard if consumed, is real. Since many hand sanitizers contain between 60 and 90 percent alcohol, improper use of sanitizers can result in health risks like vomiting, oral irritation and hypoglycemia.


In order to make hand sanitizers a safe and useful tool in classrooms, students must be taught the correct way to use it. Follow these five steps to limit improper use:


1. Teach children how to properly use hand sanitizers. Use an informational video or step-by-step informational guides in class and practice with adult supervision.

2. Provide unscented foam hand sanitizers to limit the desire to use excessively or for consumption. 


3. Use hand sanitizer with lockable or child-proof nozzles.


4. Eliminate mobile dispensers, such as those on desks and counters, and switch to wall-mounted, secure dispensers in an open area, such as near the classroom doors.


5. Wash instead of sanitize. When possible, escort children to the restrooms or nearby sink where they can wash their hands with soap and water instead.


If a child exhibits any symptoms or signs of alcohol toxicity, such as nausea, vomiting, respiratory depression and drowsiness, contact your local poison control center.


Register Your School for the Happy Hands Contest


Happy Hands, Happy Students

Students should come home from school with new knowledge to share, not a new illness. Instead of teachers and parents anticipating the dreaded cold and flu season, prepare by ensuring effective foam soap and hand sanitizers are available and accessible. Make hand hygiene a habit with regularly scheduled times to wash hands throughout the school day and at home.


While it’s nearly impossible to go a school year without a few colds, it is entirely possible to make the school a safer, healthier place by providing the right tools and encouraging everyday hand hygiene.







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