Moms know it’s hard enough to keep kids away from germs when they’re at home. But during school hours, your little ones come across all different kinds of germ-filled situations. So how do you go about teaching your kids to avoid germs during the school day, or while they’re playing sports afterward?
Basic Tips to Help Keep Germs at Bay
“We live in a world of germs and you’re going to be exposed to them; it’s just a matter of trying to protect yourself as much as you can,” says Sandi Delack, RN, BSN, M ED, NCSN, a practicing school nurse in Rhode Island and president-elect for the National Association of School Nurses. “There are things you can do to minimize your risk,” says Delack, like washing your hands, and keeping your hands out of your mouth, eyes, and nose.
However, it takes a lot of repeating to get that message into kids’ heads, Delack says. “They have to hear it over and over, and they need to hear it at school, they need to hear it at home.” The earlier kids get the message the easier it’ll be on parents. “I’ll see kids walking down the hall all the time with the tie to their sweat shirt or their chain in their mouth and I’ll say, ‘Do you know how many germs are on that? Take that out of your mouth!’”
Stopping Germs on the Bus
The bus ride to and from school is fraught with opportunities for close encounters of the germ kind. Delack says parents should be sure to tell kids that this is one time sharing isn’t a good thing -- so don’t share drinks or snacks; older kids should even be wary of talking on friend’s cell phone (or using it to text) if that friend has a cold.
Kids should also try to keep book bags off the floor, Delack says. And, parents need to set up a space far away from the kitchen counter or kitchen table -- anywhere food is prepared -- to stash school bags when kids get home.
Stopping Germs in the Classroom
So many classroom activities involve hand-to-hand contact: things like passing papers back down the row, or sharing pencils, pens, scissors and other tools. But it’s not touching things that belong to other kids that’s the problem, it’s what kids do after they touch an item. “The important part is they’re not putting their hands in their mouth and in their nose,” Delack says. That’s how germs have a chance to enter the body and that’s really how you get sick.
To counteract bacteria, many teachers purchase bulk supplies of hand sanitizer and tissues, then make them available to students throughout the year. Some schools ask each student to bring a box of tissues and a bottle of hand sanitizer and create the year’s supply that way. The key for parents is to remind kids to go get a tissue from the box or use the hand sanitizer when they need to.
Dawn Rains, a daycare and kindergarten teacher for more than 20 years in Alabama, says no matter what age kids are, some rules remain the same. She advocates the use of hand sanitizer after going outside and before lunch. She also keeps a box of tissues on the desk and “when I see a hand go near a nose, I give the child a tissue and sanitize hands. If a finger goes in a mouth, I sanitize their hands.”
Another tip for keeping bacteria and viruses off those hands: teach children to sneeze or cough into the crook of their elbow, not into their hands.
Stopping Germs in the Lunchroom
Delack says to make sure kids wash or sanitize their hands, “before they eat, before they’re picking up food and putting it in their mouths, because that’s certainly a great way to have germs enter the body. [And] we don’t want them to share.”
Most importantly, Delack tells WebMD, is to officially debunk the five second rule often applied to food, gum, utensils or, in the school nurse’s office, medication that falls to the floor. “There is no five second rule. If it falls on the floor, throw it away.”
Stopping Germs in the Bathroom
One conspicuously dirty place in any school is the restroom. Although some adults work hard to minimize their contact with any surface in the restroom, using paper towels to turn on taps or press the lever to flush a toilet, parents have to help kids think that way. Some schools have installed restroom doors that swing open and shut, allowing students to use a shoulder, elbow or hip to enter the bathroom so they don’t have to touch the door with their hands.
With so many sinks, washing hands isn’t a problem. The question is, how long should kids keep their hands in soap and water? Rains says she instructs kids to sing the Happy Birthday song twice while washing their hands. The CDC concurs. That's about 20 seconds, the ideal length for a hand-washing session.
Germs and Sports
When it comes to participating in sports, kids should be cautioned not to share water bottles, towels, or sports gear like helmets, mitts, or shin guards. Kids should put a towel down on a bench or a piece of exercise equipment before sitting on it; parents should wash sports clothing after each use.
Shannon Titshaw, a soccer coach at an elementary school in Crossville, Ala., buys bottles of water and keeps them in a cooler. Each girl on the team is required to get her own bottle before practice or a game and write her name on it.
Titshaw keeps a first aid kit on hand for minor cuts and scrapes; a trainer is on hand for more serious injuries.
Parents of older athletes who use health equipment at the school should check with the school to make sure custodial staff does an adequate job of cleaning equipment. “Parents should be really aware that the janitors or custodians really need to clean that equipment well,” Delack says.
Keep Germs at Home
Delack says one of the best illness prevention moves parents can take is to think ahead and come up with a plan to care for sick kids that doesn’t involve dropping them off at school.
“I tell parents please have a plan, because out of 180 school days, your child will be ill at least one of them, and rather than them being in a panic at 6 o’clock in the morning, you should have a plan so that you know what you’re going to do if your child’s sick. It’s hard. We have parents that will lose their job if they take the time off. But when we’re looking at pandemic potential what we’re really saying to parents is, ‘Do not send them in sick, because that’s all it will take to tip us if we start having a few kids coming in ill.’”