Healthy Schools, Healthy Kids

Keeping germs at bay and teaching proper hygiene in classrooms.

It’s inevitable. Every school year, parents, teachers and administrators must deal with an overwhelming number of sick children. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the average child catches at least eight colds in a year, and kids in the United States miss as many as 189 million school days each year due to colds.

Precautionary measures have typically focused on flu shots and other preventative care. While these actions are important, schools should also concentrate their attention on the way they are being cleaned. Most janitors responsible for cleaning schools and removing germs are not properly trained. Also, many janitors use extremely outdated cleaning methods that do not completely eradicate bacteria. 

Here are some proactive changes that can be made. If applied, administrators could effectively keep kids and teachers in the classroom by fighting germs on the ground level.

  • Understand good hygiene. The significance of good hygiene and cleaning often go unrecognized in controlling the spread of common diseases. Even today, few people are aware that four out of five common infections, such as colds, flus, diarrhea and skin infections, can be spread through environmental factors including the air, water, food and contact with surfaces. Good hygiene practices involving hand washing and using hand sanitizers, along with the proper cleaning of work and school environments, can largely reduce the number of infections people experience each year. This also means that such practices go a long way in preventing school closures and the cancelation of group activities like sporting events and workshops.
  • Fight the challenges of new germs. Germs challenge our ability to control infections. They are capable of changing rapidly and developing resistance to antibiotics used to treat infections. These new variations of germs are more likely to cause illness and result in serious infections. Two examples challenging education institutions are the norovirus and MRSA (pronounced mersa), often referred to in the press as a “superbug.”
    • Norovirus is the most common cause of viral diarrhea in young children and adults in the world. Immunity is short lived for the norovirus, causing children and their teachers to become infected with the same virus every school year. The virus can lurk on surfaces for many weeks or even months. As such, it is not surprising that outbreaks have been traced to the use of public restrooms and other shared facilities.
    • MRSA is a bacterium capable of causing serious skin and other infections. MRSA is short for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which is a bacterium noted for its resistance to certain types of antibiotics. MRSA has been recognized as an increasing problem among high school athletes. A recent survey of 186 high school athletic departments in Texas found that 60 had reported MRSA infections among their athletic departments.
  • Control germs. Proper hygiene and cleaning are effective mechanisms in controlling the spread of infections caused by both norovirus and MRSA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists five factors that make it easier for MRSA to spread in schools. These factors are referred to as the five C’s: crowding, frequent skin-to-skin contact, compromised skin (cuts and abrasions), contaminated items and surfaces, and improper cleaning.
  • Clean germ-filled classrooms. How germy are classrooms? While only a few types of bacteria cause illnesses, knowing where bacteria occur in the greatest numbers in a classroom reveals where the greatest risk of exposure to potential disease-causing microbes exists. Bacteria is found in the greatest numbers on the following surfaces in order of highest to lowest: water fountain toggle, pencil sharpener, computer keyboard, sink handle, student desktop, classroom entrance doorknob.

The benefits of good hygiene and cleaning are always a hard sell because they are not clearly visible in the short term. But for our school-age population as a whole, the benefits are huge in terms of reducing absenteeism and lowering healthcare costs. More importantly, it is an important defense in the spread of superbugs such as MRSA.

Germs continually demonstrate their tenaciousness in reinventing themselves to outwit the use of antibiotics and resist the development of vaccines for common infections. However, good hygiene and proper cleaning of our environment do wonders in the defense against germs. No disease-causing organism transmitted through the environment has developed a defense against hygiene and cleanliness.