Five Ways to Survive the Front Lines of Flu Season

American schools opened to more students this year – that's more noses per square foot – with less cash on hand to commit to keeping those square feet clean and healthy. That's because combined local and state school funding per student remains below 2008 levels in 30 states.

Cost-effective strategies that keep students in school – and the flu virus out of circulation – are appreciated by educational leaders everywhere, because healthy learning environments for students are a priority and teacher absenteeism is a big expense.

Since mandating students and staff wear surgical masks to class is not cool (and not in the budget), here's our top five tips for dialing down flu season's threat level – plus some extra credit! Each of our school-zone-defense strategies comes paired with an easy way to help students practice stewardship of their own learning environment. 

1. Floors

Let's begin at the beginning. From front door to classroom floor, every day the entire population of your school walks two shoe's worth of gunk in with them. Special entryway matting traps materials and denies countless unknown substances entrance into your building. It's not that every kid steps in a puddle of flu on the way to school, it's that dirt, mold, and pollutants on floors and carpets affect indoor air quality – adding stress on student and teacher respiratory systems. Residues built up in high traffic areas like cafeteria floors give pathogens a foothold. Think about it: every sneeze and cough that's not caught, ends up on the floor.

A clean entryway also helps define the environment as kids enter: here there be nice, clean floors. Everywhere you go in a school, there's a floor, and kids will pick up on the signal sent by clean surfaces. If that sounds too hopeful, consider this: a 2009 study found the simple smell of cleanliness (in this case, a whiff of Windex) was enough to significantly influence test subjects moral sense —even though participants said they didn't consciously notice the scent.

Ground floor advice to keeping schools flu-free, according to the CDC, is asking students to keep sneezes and coughs under control. Sneezing into the elbow appears to win the most search results – old schoolers might call this the "Dracula", while the meme-aware might say it looks like "dabbing," but it's important to note that the CDC advises this as the back-up move – sneezing into a tissue that can be disposed of is preferred.

2. Often Overlooked Touch Points

Guessing that bathrooms house a few trouble spots doesn't take a STEM expert. But which spots are the problem may surprise you. In-the-know custodians commit to best practices like separate cleaning supplies for bathrooms and proper dwell times for sanitizers, but there are plenty of surfaces that students often touch that can get overlooked in a daily routine. You might worry about flu accumulating on the bathroom door handle, but that's 101, and is probably on your custodian's checklist (if it isn't, there's a good place to start). The real differentiator is whether enough recurring attention is given to other touch points like faucet handles and the buttons on soap dispensers.

Speaking of sinks, it can't hurt to remind kids that they should wash their hands (two times through happy birthday), but it's also a good idea to encourage students not to use cell phones in the bathroom. Cell phones pick up germs just like any other touch point. As important as that snapchat might be, nobody likes to run their phone under the sink for two happy birthdays.   

3. Desks

Experiments often compare how clean something is to a toilet seat – that a computer keyboard loses this comparison (badly) is no surprise to professionals that know toilet seats are regularly cleaned while keyboards – well, when was the last time you cleaned your keyboard? Classroom desks are at the same risk for accumulating contaminants and flu particles without a proper schedule of routine cleaning. How dirty can a simple platform for papers and pencils get? University of Arizona Environmental Microbiologist Charles Gerba found classroom desks carried 400 times the bacteria usually found on a toilet seat. Now imagine those hands being raised – and put back down on the desk – and touching a nose – and put back on a desk…

Speaking of spaces students share, like desks, how many floors does an average backpack land on in a week? One way to cut down on cross-contamination from lockers, buses, cafeterias, and the countless corners a backpack finds itself flung into, is to encourage kids to avoid putting backpacks on desks and tables – especially a table where their friends will be eating lunch.

4. The Air

The one thing that touches everything in your school is the air. Keep contaminants from taking flight with a regular focus on green cleaning techniques. Tools like microfiber mops (21.9 percent higher reductions in bacteria versus traditional methods) and vacuums with good particle filtration make a difference. But all that work can be spoiled by a heating and cooling system that's not properly attended to. Good preventative maintenance goes beyond filter changes, which are important, but indoor air quality depends on proper controls, too – for instance, improper humidity levels tilt things in favor of flu virus survival.

Student absenteeism is ironically reduced by the judicious application of student absenteeism – that is – kids staying home when the have the flu. If additional authority helps (why wouldn't it?) the CDC recommends that kids stay home from school at least 24 hours after a fever is gone. Remind students that staying home means passing less germs to their friends – a favor they're sure to appreciate the next time their friends catch a bug.

5. Everywhere

This tip is less about a particular place – and more about the particulars of the plan. As diligent as a school's routine might be, imagine there's one room that's never cleaned (not the cafeteria, that's gross). Everything microscopically picture perfect, until just one student visits that room – and spreads whatever's inside all over the school. Without a detailed, well-informed cleaning plan in place, your school could have more than one place just like that room.

Scoring 100 percent on an incomplete to-do list isn't really efficient. Optimal levels of cleanliness depend on an honest assessment of each unique learning facility and the procedures needed for effective, regular cleaning, taking into consideration when students, staff, and special events are and aren't present.

If every trip down the hall risks a run-in with the sniffles' crueler cousin, it's student and teacher performance that will get sick. Professional best practices in sustainable cleaning may take commitment, but there's help to be had: students impressed by a clean learning environment can take pride in helping keep it – and themselves – healthy.

About the Author

Trey Brock is the regional vice president of Education Services at ABM Industries.