For many parents, the school environment is synonymous with more trips to the doctor's office, especially during peak cold and flu season. Schools can take a few simple steps to reduce student and staff absenteeism, and create a healthier and safer environment. The first step is in the washroom.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most effective way to prevent illness is to wash your hands. Unfortunately, most adults, let alone children, do not wash their hands for the recommended 25 to 30 seconds. Designing restrooms that encourage children and adults to wash their hands properly should be a priority for schools. If a restroom smells bad or is not well-maintained, people tend to make a hasty exit. Poorly maintained restrooms also increase the likelihood of accidents, vandalism and other inappropriate behavior.
Some germs may be found on toilet seats, but researchers say the risk of contamination there is low. Wet sink areas are a more likely place for germs to multiply. Most of the culprits are things we probably do not think about.
Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson, has made a career of testing germs and bacteria in kitchens and bathrooms. He has tested school surfaces, and found playgrounds and classrooms to be the hangout for invisible microbes like staphylococcus, E. coli and coliform. Consider all the items a child touches after he or she sneezes — and then how many students also touch those things — and it's clear how illnesses can spread quickly.
Schools need to make a greater effort to educate students on the importance of hand washing as the best defense against spreading infections. The good news is that hand-washing lessons have been making its way into classrooms to keep students, teachers and their families healthier. A teaching aid for hand washing, similar in concept to the sugar tabs dentists use for brushing teeth, can be a fun and effective way for educators to demonstrate proper hand washing and cleaning. Students spread tiny “germs” on their hands as if they were applying lotion, and after washing their hands they can see the remaining “germs” glowing under a fluorescent lamp.