Getting sick from school

Keep kids and families safe from rampant germs and bacteria

Keep kids and families safe from rampant germs and bacteria

January 26, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

The little poem that veteran kindergarten teacher Trudy Mackrell-Metz shares with her students every year has nothing to do with reading, writing or arithmetic, but it's one of the most important lessons they'll ever learn: "When you cough or when you sneeze, cover your face with a tissue, please."

Mackrell-Metz said she reinforces the lesson with her kindergarten students at Clear Spring Elementary throughout the year. She keeps a box of tissues in the center of each student work table, reminds the youngsters to use the tissues every time they cough or sneeze, to hold onto used tissues until they throw them away, and then to thoroughly wash their hands with warm water and soap.

"Parents are always very appreciative of that," the teacher said.

They should be.

Children are exposed to a whole slew of new germs when they start school - bugs that can also infect adult caregivers at home. Young kids are especially vulnerable to the viruses and bacteria in the communal setting due to their weak immune systems, nature of play, and tendency to place objects in their mouths, health experts said.


"They wrestle and play hard, face-to-face. It is difficult to keep their hands out of their noses and mouths, which is a primary route of transmission for many viral and intestinal illnesses," said Sue Peros, immediate past president of the West Virginia Association of School Nurses. "Children of this age also tend to place pencils, crayons and other utensils in their mouths."

Bacteria and viruses can be transmitted through a variety of ways, including contaminated water and food, droplets released during a cough or sneeze, dirty hands, contaminated surfaces and a sick person's bodily fluids. Such serious respiratory illnesses as influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, whooping cough and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are spread by coughing or sneezing and unclean hands, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at on the Web.

The main way that influenza viruses are spread is from person to person in respiratory droplets of coughs and sneezes. These droplets can soar up to three feet through the air and land in the mouth or nose of people nearby, the CDC Web site states.

Pediculosis, or head lice, also plague classrooms before catching a ride home on kids' scalps.

"Lice have been around since Bible times and they are still a difficult pest with which schools must deal," said Peros, who added that kids should be taught not to share combs, brushes, hats and other personal items at school. Communal mats also should be cleaned often, she said.

Like young schoolchildren and parents who've yet to build up resistance to the bugs their kids bring home, new teachers - and even veteran educators - often also fall prey to the onslaught of germs in the classroom, said Penny Shives, department chair for school health services in the Chambersburg (Pa.) Area School District.

"Even a seasoned teacher will usually pick up one wing-ding of a cold every year," Shives said.

Mackrell-Metz said she had a "standing appointment" at her doctor's office for the first few years after she started teaching in the mid-1970s. It didn't take her long to figure out that she would also benefit from teaching her students the basics of bug spread prevention.

Shives said most teachers of young children stress such preventative measures as covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze and cough - If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, the CDC suggests - throwing tissues away after blowing your nose, and washing your hands frequently.

"A very high percentage of all communicable illnesses can be prevented with proper handwashing," Peros said. "I spend more time teaching effective handwashing then any other area of prevention - and I do it not only with preschoolers and kindergarten students; I do it with cooks, teachers, first aid personnel and nurses. We should wash our hands as long as it takes to sing the alphabet song."

Washing hands is the first line of defense against the spread of many illnesses, including colds, flu, meningitis, hepatitis A and infectious diarrhea, according to The Nemours Foundation's Center for Children's Health Media's KidsHealth Web site at

The site gives the following tips for scrubbing germs away - and encourages parents to model the behavior for their young children:

  • Wash with warm water.

  • Use soap, and lather for at least 15 seconds.

  • Make sure you wash between fingers, under fingernails and wrists.

  • Rinse and dry well.

  • Encourage reluctant handwashers to sing their favorite song while they're lathering up, or buy colorful soaps that kids will look forward to using.

"If we only learned as adults what we teach our children, we would be so much healthier," Peros said. "While hand sanitizers work, good old soap and water is still necessary and works even better. So anytime, year-round, that an individual is in a public setting, handwashing is the first thing that should happen when that person arrives in the door of your home."

During the peak of influenza season, Peros also recommends that children and adults change their clothing as soon as they come home because certain viruses can be transmitted off clothing for several hours.

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