Is it any wonder that when we have so many children in one place, sharing the same toys and supplies, our classrooms are virtual breeding grounds for the germs and viruses that cause colds and the flu? According to survey results presented at a news briefing by the American Medical Association, over 95% of the teachers polled indicated that they believe much more can be done to keep classrooms cleaner and make them healthier places for both the children in the class and the adults who work with them. Further, over 90% of those questioned also felt that disinfecting classrooms on a regular basis would result in fewer absences caused by illness.
Reducing the number of germs present in our classrooms is really just a matter of establishing healthy habits and being vigilant about maintaining them. Here are a few ideas about how to keep your classroom environment safer this winter.
Make Hand-Washing a “Must”—A good hand-washing should take between 10 and 20 seconds. Teach your little ones to sing little songs like “Happy Birthday” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” twice as they wash. By the time they’ve finished singing, they will be done washing. Make sure they wash in warm water and use soap. Show them how to wash both sides of their hands and in between their fingers. Hands should always be washed before eating and after using the bathroom or wiping the nose with a tissue.
Clean Up with Disinfectant—Use a disinfectant, either spray or wipes, to clean frequently used surfaces at least once a day. Such surfaces would include tabletops, water faucets, light switches, drinking fountain handles, doorknobs, cabinet handles, paper towel dispenser handles, and pencil sharpeners. Also, if you use computers with your preschoolers, remember to wipe down each keyboard and mouse. Germs can live on all of these surfaces for quite a long time.
Tissue Issues—Tissues are a necessity in the early childhood classroom. Since providing them on a regular basis can get expensive, ask each parent to donate one box of tissue, preferably the anti-viral type. Remind your children to grab a tissue to catch their sneezes and coughs as well as when they need to blow their noses. All used tissues belong in the trash. Children can also be taught to catch a cough in the crook of their arm at the elbow, rather than in their hands without a tissue.
Teach Your Children—As early childhood educators, we spend so much time teaching our little ones to share that we sometimes forget there are things we should be teaching them not to share. Food, drinks, cups and eating utensils fall into this category. You might also want to consider having each child come to school with his own little supply box, rather than sharing crayons and markers. To do this you can ask parents to supply their children with a plastic, lidded shoe box filled with a box of crayons, markers, a pencil or two, and a pair of safety scissors. Each box should be labeled with the child’s name. Since the boxes stack, you should be able to make room to store them. If each child has her own supplies, there will be no need to share these items, and therefore fewer germs will pass from person to person.
Hang Backpacks and Purses—Children’s backpacks and adults’ purses should be hung rather than placed on the floor where they might possibly pick up some rather nasty germs—particularly from the bathroom floor. If the cubbies in your room do not already contain hooks, ask a handy parent volunteer to install them.
Plan a Washing Day—Invite the children to help wash some of the plastic toys, like Lego® bricks, in warm soapy water. Dolls can be washed with sponges, and their clothes can be washed and hung to dry. It also helps to wash stuffed animals in the washing machine frequently during the cold and flu season, and parent volunteers may be able to help with this. Make keeping things clean a community affair.
Keep the Air as Fresh as Possible—Fresh air is important, even during the colder months of the year. Try to open a door or window each day to allow the air to circulate. Another consideration might be an air filter which can remove pollen, dust, animal dander, and even bacteria from the air, though these can be expensive.
As always, the best “cure” is prevention. Teaching our children about germs, how they are spread, and what we can do to minimize this spread is a step in the right direction. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention continually stresses the fact that good hygiene in classrooms can keep them from turning into “germ factories.” Make and maintain your own plan to keep your germ count down and your attendance count up.
Marie Cecchini is the author of several teacher-resource books and many articles for teachers and parents.