Illness prevention: Students learn to share spaces, not germs

Jack Sanders and Grace Messan, students i Michelle Herman's kindergarten class at Monroe School, use disinfectant wipes to clean their school supplies. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Jan. 15, 2013 2:23 pm Updated: Jan. 30, 2013 1:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

While schools often teach sharing, kindergarten teacher Michelle Herman is wary of sharing germs.

In Herman's classroom at Monroe Elementary School each student has a small rectangular box containing personal crayons, markers and scissors. As the flu season has spiked, Herman cleans frequently touched places, ensures hands are washed and vacuums often.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have declared influenza widespread throughout Illinois.

Dr. Dennis Go, a pediatrician with Quincy Medical Group, advises sanitizing shared spaces as well as battling illness from home when possible.

"If you go (to school or work) when you're sick, you just spread it around," Go said.

Herman's class has embraced its teacher's enthusiasm for a germ-free classroom. Kindergartner Carolyn Gaus wiped a rainbow-spotted towelette across her desk. The white wipe had noticeably collected the red, yellow and purple marker splotches staining her workstation. But as Gaus cleaned off the smudges, she also wiped out the germs. Next to her, a classmate sanitized his scissors before tucking them back into his personal workbox.

"All right, my little friends, let's finish up," Herman said as the students began throwing out their disinfectant wipes. "That just feels better, doesn't it?"

Budget cuts have limited the amount of custodial work in Quincy elementary schools. When they're on site, custodians are still conscious about keeping doorknobs clean and carpets vacuumed, but Monroe Elementary School Principal Julie Stratman said the district no longer employs a full-time evening custodian for the school. Since the switch, many teachers have incorporated extra sanitization into their classrooms.

Herman said her students enjoy cleansing their workspaces, and many would clean for an hour if she'd let them.

"They're great cleaners," Herman said. "We love to scrub."

Carleen Orton, a registered nurse and the infection control coordinator for Blessing Hospital, said the flu has been most common in young adults and children that have not received flu vaccinations this season.

Herman said that, this year, her classroom attendance has thinned only slightly. Six of her 26 students were absent on a recent day of school.

Go said parents often struggle to know when to send their children back to school. Some children struggle with illness all season and would fall behind if parents kept them home for each cough.

"There is no good answer," Go said.

Coughing children who have fevers risk worsening their conditions and passing illness onto other classmates. The pediatrician explained he often treats children from the same classroom.

"Kids like to share things," God said. "They like to touch each other, and they like to hug and things like that, so it's a never-ending battle."

Keeping sick students home can pose economic problems for parents. Some families can't afford to take days off work to care for ill children.

The Center for American Progress reported that about 10 percent of workers have access to paid family leave that includes time off to care for ill children. Those who earn wages in the lowest 25 percent of an industry are less likely to have paid caregiver leave than those in the highest 25 percent.

Children in those families often end up back in the classroom before they're well enough to return.

Adults with infectious diseases should avoid the workplace when possible. Contagious workers risk passing illness onto co-workers, clients and customers.

Still, for many, the issue is not a health choice but an economic one. Many can't afford to stay home themselves. The Center for American Progress reported roughly 56 percent of workers have the flexibility to alter their schedule or work from home when necessary. The other 44 percent ends up serving customers, shaking hands and spreading germs throughout the community.

Mary Bennett, an infection preventionist for Hannibal Regional Hospital, said adults in the workplace could benefit from cleanliness practices.

Frequent handwashing can prevent spreading and receiving disease. Keeping hands away from the face also can keep germs from entering the body.

"Our hands are probably the biggest transmitters of infections," Bennett said. "We all put our hands on our face quite often; we tend to sort of inoculate ourselves with that."

Most schools have done an excellent job encouraging cleanliness, Go said.

Students know to cough into their sleeves and dispose of tissues. Teachers, such as Herman, know the most touched places in their classrooms and treat them accordingly.

Bennett said sanitizing these danger zones in schools and workplaces can significantly reduce spreading infections.

"You need to act as though every sick person has something awful that will kill you instantly," Go said.