Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hygiene at School Lunchtimes

For some parents of young children school lunchtimes can be a challenge. Whether the child takes their own packed lunch to school or whether they eat food that is provided many parents are never quite sure if:

- their child ate properly;
- drank properly;
- washed their hands before eating.

There is much talk (and perhaps much of it is justified) that we do too much hand-washing. However, although we might be used to each other's germs at home, the greater mix and greater number of people in a public place such as a school AND the obvious vulnerability of children to illness presents a significant risk of contamination. Children often naturally become grubby as the day wears on and can soon have soiled hands.

Being fed and watered (especially watered) are both important. However both of these can be corrected when the child gets home. However if the child puts his or her germ-infested hands in his or her mouth then, any resulting illness may not be as easy to correct.

As such, parents, teachers and lunch-time non-teaching staff are usually on the look-out for children in need of a clean-up before lunch. Easier said than done! Even more difficult when you consider that germs are invisible and some children can be infected and still look perfectly clean.

And what of the legal position? Well, most parties involved would not consider this is an issue at all, preferring to rely on mutual co-operation with the childrens' welfare at heart. However, whether we like it or not sometimes things boil over and litigation results. Laws may very from one jurisdiction to another but the general rule of thumb is that parents are expected to do all they reasonably can to ensure their children are prepared for school and know the basics. For example, children in junior school should know that they should wash their hands before they eat. Whether they actually do it is another matter. Teachers and school staff have a duty to do all they reasonably can to ensure that children are in a safe environment and kept reasonably clean. However, is it reasonable to expect a school to ensure 100% compliance to pre-lunch hand-cleaning? As I stated, this may depend on your jurisdiction but part of the equation may be what parents expect of their school. It may be wise for a school to provide some guidance to parents on how far they may go to ensure clean hands and reasonably hygienic conditions.

This is where the school may need to be guarded. If it undertakes to keep children clinically clean, to take an extreme, then this could not possibly be achieved. However, if it undertook to ensure each child had clean hands before lunch there are still grey areas, quite apart from the logistical challenge. For example, if there were 100 pupils in each lunchtime sitting, washing that many pairs of hands at say, 45 seconds per wash, this would take 1 hour and 15 mins. Using 5 wash basins, that is 15 minutes. 15 basins may be better resulting in only 5 minutes in total; however this would take a great deal of supervision and military-style planning and discipline - not a likely expectation in a junior school. So let's get back to 5 wash basins and a total hand-wash time of 15 minutes. Here we now have the problem that hands that were free of harmful bacteria 1 minute after washing are then full of germs after 10 minutes. A quarter-of-an-hour may be too long to expect a child to wait for his or her lunch without getting dirty. Another solution would be to have 'waves' of children - let's say 10 groups of 10. However, we are then back to military planning.

So we have a problem: how to keep children free of illness caused by harmful germs but still ensure the school can function. Rather than accepting that this problem has no solution, some schools have been getting pretty smart in recent times. The solution they have come up with is a, er, solution: that is a biocidal stay-active solution, such as Steri-7. Stay-active solutions are a new technology. We are only just beginning to benefit from them.

Stay-active biocidal sanitizers are usually in liquid form. What makes them very special is that, whereas most soaps stop working as soon as they are rinsed away, stay-active sanitizing soaps actively keep germs at bay for a long period of time. In the case of children's hands, Steri-7 stays active for 3 hours.

Such is their proven ability to keep germs away that hospitals have been quick to take them up on the wards. Stay-active sanitizers, in particular, are very useful since they do not require water and they will soon dissolve into the skin after a few seconds. Thus, the 45 second wash that took 1 hr 15 mins and up to many wash basins now takes about 3 seconds per application. For 100 children that's 5 minutes and no wash basins with very little planning and discipline required and just one member of staff to supervise the soap dispensing (these kinds of sanitizers are usually dispensed using a 1-dose pump).

This is not a trivial issue. Children can become very ill through poor hygiene. A responsibility that used to fall between stalls can now be efficiently and comprehensively undertaken to the benefit of children, parents and school staff alike.

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