Catching Germs at School and in Sports

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on October 27, 2020
5 min read

Schools are often home to all sorts of germs that can make your child sick.

“There are a lot of close interactions between people, and oftentimes a lot of sharing of objects which makes it easy for viruses to spread,” says Leslie Sude, MD, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine.

Your child can’t avoid germs completely, but there are steps they can take to stay safe. Here’s what they need to know.

Ideally, there should only be one student per row, unless they live together. Bus windows should be open as much as possible so air can move around, Sude says. 

You should also send your children off to school with hand sanitizer. That way they can squirt some onto their hands once they get off the bus before entering the school.

“They may have touched a high-touch surface on the bus, such as a windowpane or handle, that could carry germs,” says S. Amna Husain, MD, a pediatrician in Marlboro, NJ, and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Tons of people in a space isn’t the only issue.

“It’s not just that you have kids so close to one another. They often share common items such as crayons, scissors, and pencils that can harbor germs,” says William Mudd, DO, a pediatrician at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio. But these tips can lower the chances of your child getting sick. You should try to:

Stock up on supplies. Send your student in with extras of everything they’ll need. This includes pencils, paper, crayons, and glue sticks. They won’t have to borrow from the teacher or a classmate who may be sick. They should also have plenty of tissue, disinfectant wipes, and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

Remind your child to keep their hands to themselves. The average kid touches their face, eyes, or mouth at least five times a minute. So they should try to avoid touching germy surfaces like doorknobs or stair rails, says David Karas, MD, a pediatrician at Akron Children’s Hospital in Wadsworth, OH. If their school requires masks, teach them not to play with it. That can also spread germs.

Show them how to cough and sneeze correctly. Children should know to cough or sneeze into tissue, Mudd says. They can use the inside of their elbow if tissue isn’t available. They should toss the tissue and wash their hands right away or use hand sanitizer.

Stress social distancing. Sara Siddiqui, MD, a pediatrician at NYU Langone Huntington Medical Group and Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, says kids should stay as far away from other children as possible, even when they’re wearing masks. Make sure they understand what 6 feet looks like. It’s the length of a sofa or a king-sized bed.

Believe it or not, the germiest place in a school bathroom isn’t the toilet. It’s the faucet. Your kids should scrub their hands with soap for at least 20 seconds before they rinse with water. That’s about the amount of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song two times from beginning to end. They should use their elbow or a paper towel to turn off the faucet to avoid germs. The same goes for the bathroom door.

“Not all kids wash their hands like they should, so your child could pick up a germ when they exit,” Karas says. A splash of hand sanitizer once they’re back in the classroom also helps.

If your child’s school requires face coverings, remind them to wear one in the bathroom. Even if they’re the only person there, someone could walk in at any time. Masks also help protect against the mix of aerosols created when someone flushes the toilet. This could send potentially infectious COVID-19 droplets into the air.

Cafeteria tables are some of the germiest spots in school. They’re high-traffic areas where kids sit close together and often share food and drinks. Your child should always wash their hands right before they eat, Karas says. If school lunches don’t have pre-packaged meals and contactless payment, it’s safest to send them to school with a brown bag lunch. Remind them to put their mask back on as soon as they’re finished eating.              

Certain activities are more high risk than others. Sports that allow kids to stay 6 feet apart -- like cross country -- are safer than sports like football or basketball. That’s because they require close contact and are played with a shared ball, Husain says. Outdoor sports also carry less risk of germs than those usually played indoors. Here’s a few things your child can do to stay safe, no matter the sport. They include:

Wash their hands​. Do this before practice or games, or use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren't available.

Bring their own equipment. Label personal sports gear and water bottles. Pack towels, tissues, hand sanitizer, and face coverings. Your child shouldn’t share any of these items with anyone else.

Stay in the car. Don’t get out until the coach is ready to start practice.

Avoid huddles, high-fives, fist bumps, and handshakes. Don’t share food or drinks with teammates. If there is cheering, chanting, or singing, your child should be 6-8 feet away from everyone else. If you see another child spit or blow their nose without a tissue, let the coach know right away. Both of these behaviors can spread germs, Husain says.

Wear a face mask. Make sure your athlete ​​and their teammates wear one that covers their noses and mouths. They should stay 6 feet apart whenever they’re on the sidelines, in the dugout, or during team chats. Coaches and parents in the stands should wear them, too.

There are a few more steps you can take to ward off cold and flu. They include:

Get a flu shot. It can’t protect your child from every strain, but it lowers the chances of them getting seriously ill if they do catch the flu, Siddiqui says.

Be smart about socializing. If you live in an area with moderate to high COVID-19 rates, limit your children’s interactions with other peers, Sude says. If you do have playdates, keep them outdoors, make sure all kids wear masks, and practice social distancing.

Don’t send sick kids to school. Check in with your child each morning for signs of illness. Keep them home if they have a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher. Or if they show signs of illness, such as:

  • A sore throat
  • Cough
  • Diarrhea
  • Severe headache
  • Vomiting
  • Body aches