It's Everyone's Role To Keep Our Schools Healthy, Safe and Open

Standard hygiene practices, like proper handwashing, are more important than ever.

After a year of hybrid and distance learning, many K-12 schools across the country are looking to return to “normal” by holding in-person classes. Simple hygiene practices like proper handwashing can have a major impact, reducing gastrointestinal illness by 50% (Family Medicine) and absenteeism by up to 50% (American Journal of Infection Control).

With a potentially difficult flu season looming and many school-aged children unable to be vaccinated against COVID-19, it is critical for administrators and leaders within the school community to understand all necessary hygiene and cleaning protocols. Below are some key guidelines to focus cleaning protocols and help faculty, students, their families and faculty and staff stay healthy and in-school.

adult helping child wash their hands

Importance of Hand Hygiene

Despite its simplicity, handwashing is an activity most people do not do as often as they should. One study found 58% of female and 48% of male middle- and high-school students washed their hands after using the bathroom, and 33% of females and 8% of males used soap (American Journal of Infection Control). Adults aren’t off the hook, either. In fact, a study conducted by the American Cleaning Institute with the American Society of Microbiology reported 92% of adults claim to always wash their hands in public bathrooms, but only 77% were observed doing so.

Keeping clean through good hand hygiene is one of the most important steps everyone can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. That means regularly washing hands with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol when soap and water are not available. By teaching proper hand hygiene to children at home and at school — and setting a good example by washing your hands (the right way) throughout the day — school faculty and administrators have the power to decrease the spread of illness-causing germs.

Remember, proper hand hygiene includes:

  • Wetting your hands with running water, then turning the tap off
  • Lathering hands with soap and scrubbing the front and backs of your hands and between fingers for at least 20 seconds
  • Thoroughly rinsing hands
  • Drying hands with a clean towel or air drier

Hands should always be washed:

  • After using the bathroom
  • Before and after eating a meal
  • After coughing or sneezing
  • After returning from school

Administrators and Educators

Sick days are expensive! Between extra time teachers spend catching students up, lost workdays for parents and paying for substitute teachers, sick days cost the U.S. approximately $120 billion each year (CDC). Through promoting hand hygiene and instilling proper cleaning and disinfecting practices throughout the entire school community (which has the potential to extend to the home), administrators can help ensure better health and education outcomes.

As administrators lead their school communities, be sure to set the example for staff and students by washing your hands regularly and providing the necessary supplies to help students and staff keep clean and safe. Work with school nurses and custodial staff to ensure facilities are prepared for the return of students with the correct amount of supplies including hand sanitizer, soap, disinfectants and other cleaning supplies.

Teachers and staff who are pressed for time and are taking on additional cleaning responsibilities throughout the school day can help streamline the cleaning process by disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces like tables, keyboards, sink faucets and shared supplies. As part of teaching proper hand hygiene, teachers should give students time to wash hands at key moments throughout the day, like after using the bathroom, going to lunch and returning from recess. Other classroom cleaning tips include minimizing shared supplies, decreasing clutter and keeping sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol easily accessible — though supervised — for times when hand washing isn’t possible.

As teachers are called on to clean more than usual, remember to never mix cleaning products and to always read the label and follow directions prior to cleaning and disinfecting. Where possible, open doors and windows to ensure adequate ventilation, and store all disinfectants out of reach of students.

School Nurses

School nurses can make a critical difference in preventing the spread of infectious diseases in schools. In the U.S. today, only 39.3% of schools employ full-time school nurses and 1 in 4 schools does not employ a school nurse, making a nurse’s time and expertise even more valuable (National Association of School Nurses). We encourage school nurses to develop an action plan, engage students and get the school community involved. To create a culture of clean in a school, nurses can help get facilities ready for the return of students by ensuring hand sanitizer dispensers are in place and reinforcing proper hand hygiene by placing reminders and informational posters in classrooms and near bathroom sinks.

As an authority figure, set the example by teaching students how to reduce the spread of germs and practicing proper hand hygiene at all times.

teaching cleaning desk

Parents

All learning and healthy habits truly begin in the home. At ACI, we know how fun and yet how difficult it can be to teach young children how to stay clean and healthy. Teach them proper handwashing techniques, how to cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing and to not share drinks or food items with other kids. Show them how to stop the spread of germs by letting them watch you wash your hands and keep the house clean.

As your kids return to school, consider introducing some new practices to your after-school routine:

  • Leave backpacks, shoes and outerwear near the door.
  • Wash hands when kids get home from school.
  • Wash and dry face masks where applicable.
  • Stay alert, monitor children’s health and keep them home if they are sick.

By continuing to reinforce good hygiene habits at home, you will help protect the health of your family, school and community.

We All Play a Role When It Comes to Health and Safety

We are all responsible in helping decrease the spread of germs and reduce illness. All members of the school community should set good examples for handwashing and cleaning throughout the school year.

At the American Cleaning Institute, we want to do our part to keep educators, parents and children safe as they return to school. That’s why we’ve teamed up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to launch the Healthy Schools Healthy People initiative to help reinforce hand hygiene and cleaning practices to prevent the spread of infectious disease and reduce related absenteeism.

The new, interactive site offers resources for all members of the school community, including children, and provides additional guidance on proper cleaning, disinfecting and hygiene guidance from downloadable resources, expert-led webinars and more. With proper cleaning and healthy habits, we can prepare school facilities to keep students clean and healthy year-round.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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