Elementary classrooms are literally teeming with bacteria and viruses. Pathogens treat children like school buses, shuttling back and forth between school and home, polluting both and often disrupting family life with infections. Parents often treat this as inevitable or simply symptomatic of successful reproduction, but germs can be stopped. Maybe not completely. Maybe not forever. But germs can be, with a bit of strategy and some good habits, kept at arm’s length–or, ideally, slightly farther than that. They key is to embrace both personal and household inoculation.
Dr. Brent Laartz, infectious disease expert and author of Protect Yourself: From Ebola to Zika, is a big fan of the flu shot. He thinks kids should get it and not only because it can mitigate the chance of complications. He thinks they should get it to protect their family members.
“A lot of times kids will come home with a subclinical illness with influenza,” Laartz says. “They may not have much of a symptom at all, but they can bring it home to the family.” This is particularly dangerous not because it means kids are at risk—they are to a degree, but the flu doesn’t generally kill children—but it because elderly and infant family members could be exposed.
Unfortunately, there’s a timing problem in getting a flu vaccination. The pre-school physicals, where most vaccinations happen, generally occur well before flu vaccines for the season are available. That means parents are required to make a special trip. But luckily, he points out, the flu vaccine is increasingly being administered at pharmacies or even big box stores within minutes of most neighborhoods, and often at a more affordable price. The back-to-school shot is good, but he recommends embracing distributed inoculation.
He also suggests that parents do more than getting the shot and hopeing for the best. Laartz says parents can and should create at-home checkpoints to keep diseases from getting into the house in the first place.
“One of the things I’ve done is to make sure to take their phones and iPads in the car before they even go inside,” says Laartz. This serves a dual purpose. It gives the kids an incentive to get their homework done and also provides him with an opportunity to clean the damn things, which are frequently dirtier (in a bacterial sense) than their shoes.
The Four-Pronged Approach to After School Hygiene
- Create at-home checkpoints to keep diseases from getting into the house in the first place.
- Ensure that kids get the flu shot, not only because it can mitigate the chance of complications but also to protect their family members.
- Set up a hand-washing station right inside the doorway with antibacterial hand foam or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- When kids come home, make sure they remove shoes and put all items aside that are often touched and travel between home and school.
But those aren’t the only objects kids are touching all day. Grabbing backpacks, folders and lunchboxes is important too. They don’t take much to clean. Store bought, disposable bleach infused wipes will do the trick.
Once the kids are gadget-free and out of the car, Laartz suggests taking a cue from hospitals: Point them to one entrance into the home and set up a handwashing station right inside the doorway with antibacterial hand foam or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Here, kids should remove shoes and put all items aside that are often touched and travel between home and school. Not only does this keep bacteria from sneaking across the viral DMZ on overlooked objects, it reinforces a household philosophy of cleanliness.
But there are times when a virus might sneak through the defenses. Laartz recommends quarantining the sick individuals to a single area as much as is feasible with kids as well as regular wipe downs of all the shared objects that are commonly touched in the home, including remotes, devices, computers and game controllers. There should also be extra attention paid to bathrooms. “We don’t think of influenza as being spread by feces but the toilet and sink area could be a potential spot where those viruses can be spread,” says Laartz.
In the end, Laartz encourages parents to be on alert. “Be mindful of all the different ways that bacteria and virus can enter the house,” he says. “Watch for things that kids are handling a lot.”