As much as we try to protect our kids from germs at home, the minute they walk through the door and head to school, all bets are off. From school buses and public restrooms to shared desks and athletic equipment, kids are presented with opportunities to pick up and spread germs.
Germs can be found on high-touch areas of school buses like stability poles and bars, seats, and windows. As students lean against windows or put their hands on the seats and bars that stretch across the backs of seats they have the potential to pick up bacteria and viruses like MRSA, Staph, Salmonella, E. Coli and H1N1.
Like other public transportation, school buses are not disinfected as often as surfaces inside the school. Remind your student to clean their hands after leaving the school bus, especially if their first stop is breakfast in the cafeteria.
During preschool and through early elementary years, most classrooms are equipped with toys that children share. Younger children usually do not have the best hygiene, making shared items potential breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses. While official school property may have a regular cleaning schedule, many of these toys are provided by teachers or donated by parents.
How often are these toys cleaned and disinfected? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends daily cleaning and disinfecting of many school surfaces, including shared learning equipment and toys. “Follow your school’s standard procedures for routine cleaning and disinfecting. Typically, this means daily sanitizing surfaces and objects that are touched often, such as desks, countertops, doorknobs, computer keyboards, hands-on learning items, faucet handles, phones, and toys.”
If you have ever been in a public school restroom, you understand why this is on the list. Cleaning the restrooms alone is a full-time job for custodians with many restrooms needing attention multiple times throughout the day.
It isn’t just the commodes and sinks that present problems. From the moment kids walk into the restrooms they are touching doors, walls, mirrors, paper towel dispensers, and overflowing trash cans – surfaces that may not look dirty, but because they are high touch areas, they may have more germs than the toilet seat.
Two Michigan elementary schools put their cleanliness to the test and found that the cold water spigot had more bacteria than either the hot water spigot or the toilet seat. This makes sense. Bacteria need water to grow and with the number of students using these sinks each day, they have very little chance to dry out.
Many schools have rules against students sharing food to help prevent them from also sharing germs. Kids are not always great with hand hygiene, so this makes sense. However, if you have ever eaten in an elementary school cafeteria, you may have noticed these same hygiene-challenged students are handed spray bottles filled with cleaner and left to wipe down the tables. After spraying the table, they often finish their cleaning job with rags still wet from the previous use. These wet rags are more than likely loaded with germs and instead of cleaning the tables, the students are more than likely spreading a fresh coat of germs for the next group of students coming in to eat lunch.
In 2010, a study conducted by Dr. Charles Gerba at the University of Arizona found that in a K-12 school system, the surface with the most germs in the schools was cafeteria tables. Other surfaces with high bacteria count were plastic cafeteria trays and the keypad used to purchase meals in the checkout line.
Desks, especially those shared by multiple students, provide the perfect surface for students to spread germs to each other. Each time they come back to the classroom and sit at their desk, they have come from somewhere with a high germ count – the school bus, cafeteria, bathroom, or outdoor playground. As soon as they sit down and put their hands on their desks, germs are transferred to the surface.
In early elementary years, teachers often set up a lounge-style area in the classroom where students can relax and read for pleasure. These reading areas are often piled with cushions and filled with stuffed animals. These soft and furry items that are often close to the heads and faces of the children using the reading area have the potential to harbor germs but can be loaded with dust and dust mites.
Wrestling, gymnastics, and multipurpose mats
Protective floor mats that are in contact with sweat, skin, blood, and mucus are ripe for spreading MRSA, Impetigo, Herpes simplex, Ringworm, and other skin conditions. Mats used for wrestling and gymnastics competition may be disinfected after each competition, but not after each event or match giving ample opportunities for bacteria and viruses to spread.
Computer mouse, keyboard, and tablet surfaces
Shared technology in classrooms introduces new high-touch surfaces for spreading germs. The computer mouse, keyboard, and tablet surfaces found in school computer labs and classrooms had some of the highest germ counts in the testing performed at the two Michigan elementary schools mentioned previously.
However, it isn’t just the fact they are touched all day by multiple students that make the germ count high – these items are tough to clean. Keyboard and screen covers can make cleaning easier, but it is doubtful that this will happen between each student. It is far more likely that cleaning happens at the end of each day leaving plenty of opportunities for germs to spread through the school.
Shared gym lockers
It isn’t just athletic equipment and mats that harbor germs. Shared gym lockers provide dark, damp havens for germs to lie in wait for the next student coming in for gym class. Sweaty clothes, towels, shoes, and other athletic equipment stored in the locker even for short periods during clothing changes, can spread germs and provide the moisture germs need to thrive.
Dirty hands and mouths often touch the handle and spigot of school water fountains. The Michigan study showed that no two water fountains are created equally. The water fountain in the cafeteria had far fewer germs per square inch than the water fountain located in the classroom, where the germs numbered in the millions per square inch of the spigot.