Each year, things like colds, the flu, stomach viruses, strep, and other easily transmittable illnesses are spread among school children and educators. With new threats on the horizon, now is a great time to talk about maintaining good hygiene and health practices in schools.
As we watch schools and other public places in worldwide countries close for the duration of mass illness, now is the time to remind ourselves of best practices for keeping ourselves, our students, and all our families healthy and ready for learning.
Here are some tips we’ve collected for keeping as many people safe and healthy as possible.
Hygiene 101 Reminders
Professionals in the health industry advise washing your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds (about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice) before you eat, after you eat, and anytime you touch your face, eyes, or mouth.
However, teachers need to wash more often. When you pick up something another teacher or students have handled, even if they seem well at the time, be sure you wash before you touch food, your beverage container, or your face.
Wash when you get home and when you have touched materials touched by anyone else.
Remember that the incubation period varies with each illness and according to additional factors. It’s safe to assume that students and colleagues may be ill and able to spread illness before they even display symptoms.
Proper handwashing is one of the best ways to prevent illness.
If your students are young, be sure you are not only modeling this good hygiene behavior but supervising them as they wash their hands properly in any of the situations mentioned above. Older students should be reminded frequently, and students who have a difficult time with hygiene may need more reminders than most.
Water and soap are the best tools for keeping clean, but if you cannot wash, using hand sanitizer will work until you can get to soap and water. Just remember, sanitizer may kill many germs, but your hands are still dirty. Sanitizer kills bacteria and germs but does not remove whatever is on your hands.
If you wash enough that your hands get dry, also apply moisturizer after washing, as some illnesses can be spread through tiny cracks in your skin.
Coughs and Sneezes
Whenever possible, cough and sneeze into disposable tissues and dispose of them immediately. Wash or sanitize your hands right away.
If you’re caught without tissues, cough and sneeze into your inner elbow, and require students to do the same. When you’ve been coughing and sneezing frequently, be mindful not to touch those areas until you can get clean again.
Another great way to keep from bringing home illnesses is to change out of your work clothes as soon as you get home. Don’t re-wear items without washing them during seasons of heightened contagions. This is vital if someone in your home is battling a serious illness or has a compromised immune system, such as babies and the elderly.
Sanitizing Your Space
If you have a janitorial staff at your school, they may be taking care of your sanitizing needs. It’s always a good idea to let them know if you’ve had a lot of sick students.
It’s important to wipe down things frequently used. The more obvious things like desks, chairs, and bathrooms may already be taken care of. Remember to wipe down the light switches, disinfect manipulatives, and frequently sanitize technology devices used by students.
Keyboards, even those of which you are primarily the sole user, should be wiped down weekly in normal circumstances. When contagions are rampant, daily, or even after every use may be more appropriate.
Remember to disinfect the phone, whiteboard markers used communally, and anything else students touch frequently.
If your district is unable to provide cleaning or sanitizing products, you can actually make your own easily. In a glass spray bottle (if you’re using essential oils, glass is best), combine 3 cups of water, ½ to ⅓ cup of white vinegar, and if you want to make it smell nice, 10 - 15 drops of essential oils. This is not only a great, easy, and fairly cheap way to sanitize, it’s also nontoxic, so it’s safe for kids.
Lemons are not as good at sanitizing, but you can add the juice of a lemon to give your cleaner a fresh smell (and lemons can be rubbed on all sorts of things to help get them clean).
Hydrogen peroxide and rubbing alcohol can also be used in a pinch to disinfect things; although, after you sanitize, you may want to wipe again with a wet washcloth, especially if you teach very young children who lick things (which is… all of them, really).
Add a Layer of Protection
When many people in your area are ill, it’s not a bad idea to be extra careful with handling things your students have handled. You might consider wearing gloves while sharpening pencils or grading.
Be sure to sanitize your keyboard or devices frequently when using them to enter grades.
And although we’ve all done it… try never to eat or drink while grading. It’s especially important to avoid when a lot of people are ill.
Washing Seasonal Items
Sometimes we forget that coats, scarves, mittens, gloves, and warm hats need to be laundered often. Be sure you’re throwing those things that are washable in the laundry as often as possible, and remind parents to do the same with their child’s things. Also remember to get your coat dry cleaned if it isn’t washable.
Avoiding Close Contact
Depending on the age and ability level of your students, taking a literal step back from them may add an extra buffer from catching something they’ve got. Little children can be taught not to tap or touch you frequently, and although hugs from little students who adore us are so sweet, it’s okay to teach them other appropriate ways to communicate affection.
When you teach young children, there is always the possibility of being sneezed or coughed on when you are speaking to them and down on their level (usually when your mouth is wide open and you’re talking to them). Teach a lesson on how to turn away and cough or sneeze into their arm when they feel one coming on. Practice just like you would with writing letters or reading words.
When you’re talking to them, either get a little further away from them than normal during times of illness, or kindly say, “Friend, would you please take a step back? You’re in my “bubble” of personal space I keep only for me.”
Not only is this good hygiene practice for you, but it’s also great modeling for having appropriate, personal, physical boundaries as well.
Building Your Immune System
Eat foods that boost your immune system. Get enough exercise. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, and prioritize sleep and downtime. Taking good care of your body is a way to take good care of your class by extension. If you are well, you can face each day with much more confidence.
About water, encourage students to bring personal, reusable water bottles. Discourage drinking from fountains as these are hotbeds for germs. Model this behavior, and encourage students to stay hydrated throughout the day.
Some elementary schools only provide milk for students with their lunches. If possible, encourage children to bring water bottles with them to lunch. If they can sneak more water into their lunchtime, it will also help them throughout the day (and it’s better for their teeth, unless they are brushing afterward).
Staying Home When You Are Sick
We often ask (beg, plead, etc…) for parents to keep their sick children home from school, but educators often find reasons not to follow the same instructions.
If you’ve got a fever, you’re experiencing stomach issues, or you’re just feeling awful, stay home. Yes, adults are more responsible and far more capable of keeping illnesses contained by remembering to wash their hands frequently and cough into their inner elbows, but the fact still remains that with airborne illnesses you cannot be 100% sure that you aren’t passing on the contagions.
Stay home. Please. You need to rest and recover anyway.
Planning and Preparing for Possible Quarantines
At the time of this writing, countries around the world are closing public places due to the coronavirus. Although it is possible that shutdowns due to this coronavirus could feasibly happen in parts of the U.S., the fact is that each year schools have to close due to strep and flu.
While there’s no reason to panic, it’s a good idea to plan strategically for possible quarantine days if illness is spreading in your area.
Because our most vulnerable students need routine and daily interaction with material to prevent regression and enhance learning, have printed review packets on hand for students to bring home and work on with their families.
Be sure you’ve got access to all your students’ data from home in case the school closes for illness and you want to be able to communicate with your students.
If your students have access to the internet and you want to continue to meet with these vulnerable students (or all of your students) during a quarantine, you can use programs like Skype or Zoom. Zoom is a free account some of our writers use when tutoring. There are “screen share” features, so students can watch as you work on a document (ie: you can read the document together), or you can give them access to writing tools so they can write on shared documents.
There are lots of tools with Zoom. You can have up to 100 participants in a class, or you can meet with students one-on-one. It’s a great tool for keeping in touch with students and families.
It’s also a fun way to meet in the summer if you’re an elementary teacher who wants to do “class parties” online to check in with your students and help them as they transition to a new grade.
You’ll need to prepare all of this before-hand - making review packets, signing up for accounts, and sharing account information with families. You may even consider doing a tutorial or “practice run” ahead of time to be sure all your equipment and theirs works properly.
Classroom management can be a struggle when coming back after an unexpected break due to illness. Keeping in touch with students and encouraging them to stay healthy and keep learning can help ease the transition back.