Schools are back in session, and it is important for students to practice good hygiene for the health and wellness of their community, including their teachers, volunteers, parents and students. Germs are ubiquitous. There are pathogens that spread quickly throughout a community, especially within the school system, leading to missed days of learning, socializing, as well as other invaluable services our children need access to. Luckily, there are a few basic and simple steps that can be followed to help reduce the spread of germs within classrooms. These practices have been around for generations but truly remain our biggest defense against germs.
Model good hygiene – Role modeling is an important part of teaching youth the proper way of handling their germs. “Children are more likely to follow examples set by those they look up to, so being a positive role model is very important” (Creating Healthy Schools, 2018). Be sure to recognize children following proper germ etiquette and praise them for it! Rewarding positive behavior shows youth that this is good; and for children, this praise is something they are all seeking. One study recommends that having a “focused, organized, and detailed behavior management plan that consistently utilizes positive reinforcements can influence students’ behavior in a desired manner” (Diedrich, 2010).
Teach and enforce proper germ etiquette – We all hear “cough into your elbow”, “cover your mouth”, “don’t pick your nose”, “don’t touch your face”, etc., but we have all seen students (and adults) breaking these basic rules. However, students may not have hygienic role models at home, or their guardians may not know how to effectively communicate the steps to washing hands or may lack an understanding of the various situations when you want to cover your mouth, not pick your nose or touch your face. Teachers can post signs, have stickers for rewarding good etiquette and use special songs to teach and encourage these behaviors throughout the school day. Including proper germ etiquette in classroom behavior plans can be instrumental in reducing the spread of germs in the schools and beyond. As we know, learning new behaviors takes time, so schedule extra time if possible for students to master these lifelong skills. These behaviors may help save lives!
Wash hands – “Handwashing is the single most important thing that you can do to prevent the spread of infection,” (Morris Hospital, 2020). Knowing when and how to wash will go a long way for a healthier society. For example, at school, we wash hands before snacks, before lunch, before and after working in the school garden or handling classroom pets, after using the bathroom, touching trash, blowing noses, using cell phones or electronic devices, treating wounds, and after large group activities. Just like any learned behavior, proper handwashing must be observed and taught repeatedly until the students are correctly washing their hands each time.
There are great hands-on activities that many schools or Extension services provide that allow children to see how germs hide on their hands (glitter/glowing germs) and then they get a chance to wash and see how well they do at washing their hands. There are a couple lesson plans in the sources below (Do Bugs Need Drugs and Kids Health in Classrooms).
Limit hand sanitizer – While sanitizing does help keep hands cleaner, it does not remove all types of germs. “Sanitizer acts by killing certain germs on the skin” (CDC, 2020). They report, “Although alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of germs in many situations, they should be used in the right situations. Soap and water are more effective than hand sanitizers at removing certain kinds of germs” (CDC, 2020). Having hand sanitizer in class can be beneficial, but teach students that it is not a guarantee of getting rid of all their germs.
Avoid touching your face – This may be the biggest difference in keeping germs from actually entering the body (Morris Hospital, 2020). As we practice proper germ etiquette, it is also important to reduce how frequently we touch our faces. Most individuals are touching their face more frequently than they assume, many studies believe we touch our faces sixteen times an hour. Reducing the times our germy hands get close to our faces where germs get access to our internal systems is just another way to increase immunity and reduce the spread of germs. When considering classroom activities, especially in regards to food, having ways to consume the food without touching it with germy hands is beneficial. Handwashing is obviously the best choice, but when it’s not available, consider using other tools to eat with or providing spoons or forks to consume food.
Clean common areas – Many classrooms have rotating group work or areas where students may be in closer contact with each other. According to the Centers for Disease Control (2021) this can weaken and damage virus particles and decrease the risk of infections. Check out their Toolkit for School Administrators found in the sources below. Also, be sure to remember that there are differences between cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting. Each of these methods help reduce the spread of germs.
Creating healthier classrooms and reducing the spread of germs has very little to do with the activities we are doing and much more in how we are handling the germs our bodies come in contact with. When it comes to foods in the classroom, it’s all about making sure utensils are clean, hands are clean, and children are using proper cleanliness techniques. This improves overall health of the classroom without any harmful side effects. For more information, be sure to check out the Toolkit for School Administrators for cleaning and disinfecting classrooms listed in the sources.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, November 4). Hand sanitizer use out and about. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/hand-sanitizer-use.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Cleaning, disinfection, and hand hygiene in schools – a toolkit for school administrators. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/schools-childcare/clean-disinfect-hygiene.html.
Creating Healthy Schools (2018) https://www.childrensmercy.org/contentassets/7059b15204644aef855ee8034b790a10/1_3_role_modeling_family.pdf
Diedrich, Jennifer L., “Motivating Students Using Positive Reinforcement” (2010). Education and Human Development Master’s Theses. 9. https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/ehd_theses/9
Do Bugs Need Drugs (2009) http://www.dobugsneeddrugs.org/wp-content/uploads/kindergarten-lesson-plan.pdf
Malone, M. (2020, January 8). Infection preventionist: Stop touching your face. Morris Hospital. https://www.morrishospital.org/health-topics/infection-preventionist-stop-touching-your-face/.
Nemours. (2015). Kids Health. https://classroom.kidshealth.org/classroom/prekto2/personal/hygiene/germs.pdf.
Sarah Ransom, Family and Consumer Science Extension Agent, University of Tennessee, Johnson County
Shauna Henley – Family and Consumer Science Senior Extension Agent, University of Maryland