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The Dangers of the Soapless Classroom

A parent walks into her daughter’s kindergarten class during a parent visit day in the middle of one of the worst flu seasons in recent U.S. history. Knowing that germs and bacteria love to hang out in America’s schools more than kids love recess, the parent heads to the sink to wash her hands.

At the classroom sink she finds no soap to speak of. No hand sanitizer either. She also notices she is the only parent at the sink washing their hands.

Unfortunately, this parent’s nightmare scenario is becoming a much too common scene in the USA’s classrooms. Budget cuts and penny pinching have led many school districts to leave teachers on their own to arm their classrooms with the essential ingredients needed to fight the flu: soap, hand sanitizer, hand sanitizer wipes and, perhaps most alarmingly, tissues.

How bad has the soapless classroom epidemic gotten? The website Buzzfeed.com surveyed teachers nationwide in August 2014 on the classroom supplies they had to pay for, and chief among the items teachers reported they are purchasing themselves are soap, hand sanitizer and Kleenex.

A soapless classroom is like sending our kids out into the snow in the brutal cold of January without a coat, hats or gloves and saying, “Good luck!” The National Education Association recommends teachers keep tissues, hand sanitizer and hand sanitizer wipes in every classroom.

With the H3N2 strain of the flu evading most vaccines, the 2014-15 influenza season has hit America harder than any recent year. Federal health officials have declared the flu an epidemic this year. Some 43 states have reported widespread incidences of the seasonal flu. According to the Associated Press, in Iowa alone three children 14 and  under have died and 32 influenza outbreaks have been reported as of January 15, 2015 – just the halfway point of this year’s flu season.

Teaching preventive flu measures in our schools is essential because the virus preys on the very young. Reminding kids (and reminding them again) of the importance of hand washing is a parent’s first and best defense against having a sick child during cold and flu season. Doctors say hand washing with soap and water is the best way to kill germs and also strongly recommend schools to use hand sanitizers in every classroom.

“For a lot of circumstances they work really well,” Dr. Mark Rupp of the University of Nebraska Medical Center says, “they’re an added element in the overall recipe of how you prevent the spread of infections.”

The health and hygiene company Unilever also notes on its website that children learn good habits through repetition. Their website recommends teachers and schools adopt a 21-day hand-washing program with soap to reinforce to their students the importance and health benefits of regular hand washing. During the 2007-08 flu season, Unilever’s Lifebuoy brand conducted a clinical hand washing control group trial in India involving 2,000 families. Half of the families were supplied with soap along with regular education about the importance of washing hands with soap at least five times a day. The other half of the families in the study continued with their regular hygiene practices.

The results of the study were released in 2013 and they were telling: The study showed a 27 percent reduction in school absences among the 5-year-olds tested and a significant reduction in disease incidents among other family members.

And the best, most influential way for kids to learn the importance of hand washing is for parents, teachers, coaches and adults to practice it themselves. Health experts universally recommend schools adopt programs teaching kids the basics of proper hygiene.

“We teach kids everything else, so we can teach them how to keep from spreading germs,” Steve Brooks of the Maryland State Teachers Association told NEA.org.

And we need to make sure kids have the tools they need to practice proper hand hygiene in every one of America’s classrooms: Soap, hand sanitizer and hand sanitizing wipes.

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