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School-Wide Handwashing Campaigns Cut Germs, Absenteeism


Studies reveal that school-wide handwashing programs can make a difference in the health of students and staff and, as a result, improve school attendance. If your school does not have a program in place, are you aware of how many resources -- including many free ones -- are available to help get you started?

Did you know...

  • Nearly 22 million school days are lost each year due to the common cold?
  • 52.2 million cases of the common cold affect children under 17 years of age each year?
  • Children have about 6-10 colds a year?
  • Adults average 2-4 colds a year?
  • Some viruses and bacteria can live from 20 minutes up to 2 hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, and desks?

The CDC reports that addressing the spread of germs in schools is essential to the health of our youth and our schools. "The most important thing that you can do to keep from getting sick is to wash your hands," according to the CDC's official statement on handwashing.

And many studies document handwashing's impact on student and staff attendance: school-wide handwashing programs reduce absenteeism.

  • A study of 305 Detroit children found that youngsters who washed their hands four times a day had 24 percent fewer sick days due to respiratory illness and 51 percent fewer days lost because of stomach upset.
  • A study of 290 students in 5 schools (two in Ohio and one each in Delaware, Tennessee, and California) revealed that handwashing education and the use of hand sanitizer resulted in 51 percent less absenteeism.

When Should You
Wash Your Hands?

You should wash your hands often. Probably more often than you do now, according to the CDC. It is especially important to wash hands
  • before and after handling food,
  • after using the bathroom,
  • after touching animals,
  • when your hands are dirty, and
  • more frequently when someone in your home is sick.
Source: CDC

Those statistics about student absenteeism are a strong argument for introducing handwashing into the school curriculum. Inspite of that data, "we have had experience with several principals who have given our handwashing curriculum a lukewarm reception," says Carol Schreiber, a consultant with the Minnesota Department of Health.

On average, teachers are absent from school more days than students are, says Schreiber. Multiply the number of teacher sick days per year times the daily fee for a substitute, and then you're talking money. "That's why we decided to put our handwashing curriculum into the context of the cost of absenteeism to schools," added Schreiber. "Making that connection to the costs to the school district gets their attention!"


The availability of hand sanitizer has cut down on the spread of colds at Transfiguration School in West Hazleton, Pennsylvania, according to principal Sherry Ambrose. Each year, Ambrose and the school's teachers send home a list of items that are frequently used but not always in supply, and willing parents respond to those requests.

"A few years ago we began requesting bottles of hand sanitizer along with our request for tissues and other items," Ambrose told Education World. "Now every classroom has a large bottle with a hand pump right inside the classroom door.

"Students never miss the chance to use the hand sanitizer -- they love it! And all our teachers and I keep a bottle handy on our desks."

In Arlington, Virginia, schools used to rely on parents to supply sanitizer gel, but now the district has installed hand-sanitizer dispensers in all classrooms and made large supplies of the gel available. "Now when children are coming in from recess or going to lunch without time for a restroom break, they get a squirt of the gel," said Lolli Haws, principal at Arlington's Oakridge Elementary School.

Haws also shared that her school is home to an in-house TV studio, and students have produced and directed tv segments on handwashing for their peers.

"When a number of children in a classroom are absent, teachers often stop and have everyone pitch in to wash down desks and other things with antibacterial detergent," added Haws.

t the start of cold and flu season, principal Karen Hodges asks her school nurse to visit each classroom to teach a lesson on the importance of handwashing. "Even though many of us have the anti-bacterial solution in our rooms, the best antidote for germs is wash, wash, wash with soap and water," explained Hodges, principal at Brockton (Massachusetts) Christian School.

"We teach our students to sing the ABC song while they're washing their hands," added Hodges, noting that washing for the length of the song will be long enough to kill most germs. Another principal suggests having students sing "Happy Birthday." Each song means students wash their hands for 15 to 20 seconds.

At Edenrose (Ontario, Canada) Public School, principal Deepi Kang-Weisz says the regional health department provides a curriculum that reviews handwashing techniques with students. "We also hang handwashing posters in all student and staff washrooms," she added.


So what are you doing in your school to actively promote student handwashing? Programs abound for teaching students about its importance and its positive impact on their health. Many such programs can be found online. That's why Education World recently "scoured" the Internet in search of handwashing materials that you and your teaching staffs might use to educate your students, cut down on illness, and improve attendance. Most of the programs below offer free components -- lesson plans and activities, posters, games, and more.

Wash Your Hands: Educating the School Community
This program developed by the National Food Service Management Institute and the USDA includes a booklet (which includes activity ideas, lesson plans, clip art, and more), training video, and many posters in English and Spanish.

Healthy Hands, Healthy Kids

This program offers free lesson-plan packages for grades Pre-K through 2 and Grades 3 through 6. The program is sponsored by GOJO Industries, producers of Purell hand sanitizers.

Henry the Hand
Many resources that are part of Henry the Hand's Champion Handwashing Program are available online. Others (coloring books, stickers, T-shirts) are available for a small cost.

The Scrub Club
This heavily animated Web site for kids presents E.Coli, Bac, Sal Monella, and other villains to good health. The site includes games, songs, and more.

Germs on Their Fingers
A brightly illustrated, bilingual book teaches children of all ages to wash their hands. Comes with an optional audio CD for teachers.

Clean Hands Coalition
Not much here in the way of resources, but they do offer some "Fun Ideas" for celebrating National Clean Hands Week in September.

Teaching Hand Hygiene
This tool kit from the Minnesota Department of Health provides many informational handouts. Also included are lessons and projects ideas for grades Pre-K through 12 and a list of picture books on the topic of handwashing.


A recent study of the handwashing habits of high-school students revealed that 58 percent of girls and 48 percent of boys wash their hands after using the bathroom. A teacher might try to duplicate this study in their own school by investing their students with the responsibility of being "restroom spies." Have them watch students from other classrooms and report back on the results of their study. Track the results to determine whether boys or girls in your school have good handwashing habits; and what percent of boys and girls wash their hands after using the restroom.

Education World recently "spied" these additional handwashing lesson plans online:

Handwashing Curriculas and Student Project Ideas
K-12 lesson ideas from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Down With Germs
A couple dozen pages of lesson plans for grades Pre-K through

Sink Those Germs
A game and handouts for teaching young children.

Healthy Kids Mean Happy Classrooms
Experience the results of a comprehensive hand hygiene program. Absenteeism was reduced by 51% in classrooms that used PURELL and implemented a hand hygiene program versus classrooms that did not.

It Might Come in Handy: Learning About Handwashing
The New York Times Learning Network offers this lesson for grades 6-12.

Caught Dirty-Handed
This activity could be adapted across the grades.

Handwashing Laboratory Activities
These college-level activities could be used in high school.

Scrub Club for Kids
And lots of downloadables for teachers too.


Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2018 Education World

Originally published 12/05/2005
Last updated 06/14/2015