Schools have always been a hot zone for spreading germs and illnesses. In the new COVID-19 era, we all want to be more careful. As we enter a new school year, it’s important to keep in mind all the ways COVID-19 and other germs can hide in plain sight.
“School learning is a high-contact sport,” says Stacey R. Hammer, MD, a general pediatrician at Cooper University Health Care. “Kids touch multiple surfaces numerous times a day. Even the most diligent cleaning, disinfecting, and handwashing practices can only lessen the possibility of germs being passed from one child to another.”
Although many of us think that bathrooms are the most likely place for germ transmission, they are not the biggest worry. Toilets and other bathroom surfaces are typically cleaned regularly. Since surfaces in bathrooms are primarily ceramic, metal, and other smooth materials, it’s harder for germs to linger there compared with porous surfaces such as concrete, wood, cloth, and carpeting.
Some of the most likely places for germs to hide are those that are touched frequently but may not be cleaned as regularly as lavatories, such as:
- Drinking fountains
- Classroom books and shared electronic devices
- Gym equipment
- Bus seats (especially the back of the seat in front of a child)
- Playground equipment
“Teach your kids that hand washing is still one of the best tools in the fight against germs,” says Dr. Hammer. “Keeping your hands clean not only keeps you safe but also helps to keep others safe. If your hands are clean, you’re not spreading germs.”
She offers the following advice about hand hygiene.
- Wash your hands with regular soap and water whenever possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that antibacterial soap is no more effective than regular soap and warm water.
- Use paper towels to dry your hands. Although paper is not the most environmentally friendly option, it’s best for limiting the spread of germs. After you dry your hands, you can use the paper towel to open the bathroom door before you dispose of the towel. Hand dryers are more environmentally friendly, but you still have to touch the bathroom door to leave.
- Hand sanitizer is a good alternative. Hand sanitizer is a good second choice when soap and water are not handy. Alcohol-based sanitizer kills all but a few types of bacteria. Be sure to rub the sanitizer into your hands until your skin is dry.
“The best hand hygiene tip is to model the right behaviors for your children, both at home and in public,” Dr. Hammer says.
She said that this includes washing your hands:
- After using the bathroom
- Before and after eating
- After exiting the school bus
- After using shared materials (like books, gym equipment, computers, or tablets)
- After coughing or sneezing into your hands
Another good practice is to avoid touching your face. Germs on your hands can find their way inside your body through your mouth, nose, and eyes.
Unpacking Germs from Backpacks
Backpacks are essential to help your child tote books, homework, school supplies, and other items — including germs — from home to school and back again.
“Most backpacks spend the school day on the floor beside your child’s desk, in the lavatory, or on the ground outside — all places where they can easily pick up germs,” Dr. Hammer says. “The soft fabric and nooks and crannies created by pockets and zippers make it easy for germs to escape superficial cleaning.”
Here are some tips on keeping these uninvited guests out of your house.
- Always store backpacks in the trunk or cargo area of your vehicle.
- Have your child leave their backpack at the door when they get home and only take out what they need.
- Empty the backpack entirely at least once a week, and if it is not washable, spray it with a disinfectant (if it won’t harm the surface). Some backpacks are machine washable but may have special instructions, so read the label before laundering. If the weather allows, place the backpack outside in the sun to dry.
Get Into a Germ-Fighting Routine
“Pretty much anything kids take to school with them can become contaminated, even their clothes,” Dr. Hammer says. “Some of those items must be cleaned daily. The easiest way to ensure that you and your family keep up with the cleaning tasks is to add them to your routine.”
She suggests adding the following tasks to your household routine:
- Shoes: Enact a “take shoes off at the door” rule.
- Clothing: Have your kids undress when they get home and put their clothes in the laundry. They can take a quick shower and put on clean clothes.
- Electronic devices: Clean phones, tablets, and other devices daily. The CDC suggests using alcohol-based wipes or sprays containing at least 70% alcohol to disinfect touchscreens.
- Lunchboxes: Every day, wipe down lunchboxes, wash them in the sink, or spray them with disinfectant. Once a week, do a deep clean, including sending fabric lunch totes through the laundry.
”These tips are good reminders for all ages, not just children in school, and adults should frequently disinfect to their handbags, tote bags, and personal electronics,” says Dr. Hammer. “With a little planning and a few changes to family routines, you can limit the spread of germs and minimize sick days for everyone.”
Dr. Stacey Hammer provides primary pediatric care at Cooper’s Primary and Specialty Care Center in Moorestown. She is currently accepting new patients. To make an appointment, call 800.8.COOPER (800.826.6737) or use our online form.