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School Absenteeism Due to Illness - Fact or Fiction?

September 11, 2013

For many, September marks the return to school.  Some parents will bedescribe the image celebrating the fact that life can again get back to some semblance of a routine while other parents may be dreading the juggling of extracurricular activities.  For me, it signifies the potential start of a 10-month cycle of sickness.


School absenteeism due to illness is not fiction.  In the United States, there are approximately 164 MILLION lost school days each year among students in kindergarten to grade 12 which averages out to 4.5 sick days per student per year.   In fact, some studies have shown that kindergarteners on average have 12 colds a year, while older kids develop about seven.  In a society where school reimbursement is directly related to attendance this can mean the loss of a significant portion of the schools funding.  Reimbursement numbers vary from district to district, but generally average $30 - $50 per student.  To a school district with a student population of 50,000 that receives a $30/student reimbursement, a daily absenteeism rate of 1% can mean a loss of $15,000/day.  Assuming that same district of 50,000 students averages 4.5 sick days each, by the end of the school year we are talking big bucks - $6.75 MILLION to be exact!


The effect of implementing a hand hygiene program in schools to reduce infections has been well documented by a number of studies.  In our back-to-school blog last year, URGENTLY NEEDED - 1 Angry Bird Knapsack, I highlighted a study that reported after a hand hygiene program was implemented where student's used hand sanitizer 3 times per day that the number of students who missed four or more days due to illness dropped by 66%!


A study published in 2009 in the Journal of School Nursing by Gerba et al titled "Occurrence of bacteria and viruses on elementary classroom surfaces and the potential role of classroom hygiene in the spread of infectious diseases" explored the survival of bacteria and viruses on surfaces in classrooms in an attempt to determine if an environmental hygiene program using disinfecting wipes could reduce infections.  In the study, disinfecting wipes were used daily (each morning before students arrived) to clean surfaces within classrooms.  The study found that the water fountain handle and the manual pencil sharpener, both of which are used by numerous students throughout the day were two of the most bacterially contaminated classroom surfaces.  The sink faucet handle, the paper towel dispenser and the student desktops were most often contaminated by Influenza A virus and Norovirus was frequently found on these surfaces as well.


As with the hand hygiene study, Gerba et al found that the classrooms that were cleaned and disinfected each morning with a disinfectant wipe had a statistically significant reduction in student absenteeism due to illness suggesting that proper classroom environmental hygiene program could reduce the transfer of bacteria and viruses from environmental surfaces to students hands.


As you prepare to send your kids back to school ask yourself one of two questions: how much sick time did I save over the summer to use this fall as bacteria or viruses invade my home and what can I do to prepare my children to battle these vicious little bugs?  The truth is keeping them healthy throughout the entire school year may be unrealistic.  However; if you take some time to teach your child to keep their hands clean by washing before eating and after EACH time they use the bathroom, teach them the importance of not sharing hats, makeup, towels etc and teach them to keep their area clean you may significantly improve your odds of not having to miss work to look after your sick child.   At the very least if you pack hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes in their lunch box and instill the importance of sanitizing their hands and cleaning their desk before eating you'll still be a step ahead.


I wonder, instead of grounding a child for bad marks, what would happen if we grounded them for each day they were you think they would start washing their hands and cleaning their desks then?


About Nicole Kenny


Nicole KennyNicole Kenny along with Lee Nesbitt of Virox have a passion for infection prevention. It has led them to author many articles for various trade magazines and journals. They also provide webinars and seminars to educate the Infection Prevention and Environmental Services communities on the correct use of chemical disinfectants and their role in infection prevention. Be sure to visit the "Talk Clean to Me Blog" for more information.

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