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Back to school, back to germs

Teaching children good hygiene practices can help reduce illness at school and at home.  (

Teaching children good hygiene practices can help reduce illness at school and at home.

Sniffle, sneeze cough – for many kids it’s the soundtrack of back to school.

After a summer of limited exposure, returning to school opens the door – literally – to more germs. Doorknobs and handles are high-traffic and therefore among the most germ-laden surfaces in a school. But take heart. While no child can live in a bubble, there are steps parents can take to minimize contact with people or things that might make their children sick.

According to a 2013 KidsHealth in the Classroom survey, 28 percent of the school nurses responding said the most important way to keep students healthy during the school year is to make sure they wash their hands. Likewise, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) admonishes: “Keeping hands clean through improved hand hygiene is one of the most important steps we can take to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others.”

But getting kids to practice good germ prevention is a challenge – they can’t see germs, so it’s easy to forget that germs are everywhere or that there’s good reason to wash up after work or play.   Fortunately, there are a few ways to help even young children understand the unhealthy power of germs. Start by explaining the connection between germs and illness. If kids understand that germs can make them feel yucky and cause them to miss their favorite activities, they may be more likely to take precautions. Also point out that if they spread germs to others, their friends and family could become sick too.

For kids, seeing is believing. Before the first day of school parents can show their children exactly how germs spread with this easy tip from Lysol. Add some glitter to hand sanitizer, have one child use it, and then have everyone shake hands with everyone else. This demonstrates how easily germs spread from person to person with simple contact – illustrating that germs can spread even if there is no contact with the original germ carrier.

That’s the problem with germs – they’re everywhere. School custodians do a great job keeping things clean, but the battle against germs in the classroom is never-ending – and custodians don’t clean everything. Just think about that collection of shared pencils, markers, books or other objects that never see the custodian’s cleaning rag.

Here are a few more places where germs are likely to be lurking at school.

Perilous pencil sharpeners: Whether it’s an old-fashioned wall-mounted sharpener, or a small collection of hand-held sharpeners that get passed around, the humble pencil sharpener could be the germiest item in the classroom.

Surprising sinks: With all the soap, water, and hand washing that goes on at the classroom sink, the assumption is it’s the cleanest place in the room. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Not all students will follow proper hand washing techniques – so the tap handles, counter around the sink, and any dispensers could be havens for germs.

Dangerous bean bags, stuffed animals, carpets and rugs: Comfy seats are cool, but they could be making students sick. Kids with allergies or asthma are especially prone to becoming infected by the pathogens that soft items collect.

While parents can teach young children, and remind older ones, to frequently and properly wash their hands, cover their coughs and catch their sneezes – the CDC recommends covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or in a pinch their upper sleeve or elbow – teachers also have a vital role to play.

When asked “What’s the most important thing teachers can do to help keep students healthy during the school year?” 73 percent of nurses surveyed said teachers should encourage proper hygiene and hand washing, and keep desks and classrooms clean. Twelve percent said teachers should be role models to their students for healthy behaviors, and 3 percent said teachers should send students home or to the nurse’s office as soon as students say they feel sick or show signs of illness.

The simple truth is that germs are a part of life and cannot be completely avoided. However, with a bit of education and encouragement from parents and teachers, going back to school does not have to mean going back to germs.

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