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How to Help Your Kids Prevent the Spread of Germs at School


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Back-to-school 2020 looked a lot different this year. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, kids headed back to socially distanced classrooms with face masks, bottles of hand sanitizer, and daily schedules that for some now include staggered in-person learning and virtual learning at home. The goal of all these new tools and strategies is to help kids limit the spread of germs and stay healthy.

While adults know frequent hand-washing and sneezing into the crook of your elbow are effective ways to stop the spread of germs, children often don’t. Parents and caregivers need to show kids what they can do to build healthy habits during the school year and avoid illnesses like the common cold. And these habits are especially crucial right now, with COVID-19 cases rising and flu season in full swing.

Children & COVID-19

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that COVID-19 poses relatively low risks to children, though the number of diagnoses is increasing. Infection rates differ between age groups, however.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that nearly 3.28 million children have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of March 11, 2021. To date, children make up 13.2% of all COVID-19 cases.

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Although children appear to be at lower risk from the disease, the risk is still there. Some children have developed multi-inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C, after contracting COVID-19. As of March 1, 2021, the CDC reports that there were 2,617 cases of MIS-C and 33 deaths. However, Yale News reports that children appear to be better protected from severe cases of the disease compared to adults.

A more significant concern is that children can spread COVID-19 to others in their household or teachers and school staff, who may be more vulnerable to the disease. A May 2020 meta-analysis published in Acta Paediatrica reviewed over 700 scientific papers and found that it’s highly likely children can transmit SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

However, in household transmission studies, such as this November 2020 study in Authorea, children were rarely the index case, meaning they were rarely the first person in the household to contract the disease.

But even if they’re not the first case, children can still transmit the disease to others at school if they become infected. The Authorea study also reports that older children, ages 10 to 19, have higher transmission rates than younger children ages 10 years or less.

And because the CDC notes adolescents are twice as likely to contract COVID-19 as younger children, if you have tweens or teens, they should follow the same COVID-19 guidelines as adults.

How to Fight Germs

With flu season coming on top of COVID-19, families everywhere are doing whatever they can to stay healthy and lower their risk of illness.

1. Teach Hand-Washing

There’s a sound reason the CDC stresses the importance of keeping your hands washed and clean: It’s the single most crucial thing you can do to prevent the spread of illness.

Teach your kids the value of hand-washing at home. They should wash their hands for 20 seconds, or about how long it takes them to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. You can encourage hand-washing by washing your own hands whenever they need to wash theirs.

Kids also need to know when to wash their hands. The CDC recommends hand-washing during these key times when you’re most likely to spread germs. For children at school, that includes:

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After touching garbage
  • After touching an item or surface frequently touched by other people, such as doorknobs, the water fountain, playground equipment, sports equipment, a pencil sharpener, tables, or desks
  • Before you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth

You can also use visual instructions to help your child remember how to wash their hands properly. Lysol created a free child-friendly poster that parents and teachers can print and hang up in their home or school bathrooms to help kids remember hand-washing steps.

According to the CDC, you should follow these five steps when you wash hands:

  1. Wet your hands with clean running water. Turn off the faucet, and apply soap.
  2. Lather your hands by rubbing them together. Scrub between your fingers, lather the backs of your hands, and clean under your nails.
  3. Scrub your hands at least 20 seconds, or as long as it takes you to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. (If your kids are tired of singing the “Happy Birthday” song, ask them to sing the ABC song or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” twice. They’re roughly the same length.)
  4. Rinse your hands under running water.
  5. Dry your hands using clean paper towels or air-dry them.

Getting young children to wash hands properly is typically more challenging than with older children, who can better understand why they need to do it. That’s why it can help to make hand-washing a fun experience for young kids.

One idea is to purchase a fun soap dispenser for your home or your child’s classroom. For example, you could try a touchless soap dispenser that looks like a friendly giraffe or a sleepy dinosaur. Another idea is to purchase fun soaps for their classroom, such as hand soaps with a dinosaur prize inside.

2. Give Them Hand Sanitizer

In a classroom environment, frequent hand-washing isn’t always possible. Fortunately, there is an alternative. Make sure your child goes to school each day with a full bottle of hand sanitizer. They should use hand sanitizer in situations when they cannot get to a bathroom to wash their hands.

To help kids remember to use their hand sanitizer, purchase some fun silicone hand sanitizer holders. These hand sanitizer holders come with a loop hook that can attach to a backpack, jacket zipper, or belt loop and come in a wide variety of fun designs, like superheroes, dinosaurs, or other cartoon designs. Older kids and teens might prefer a hand sanitizer wristband that shoots hand sanitizer directly into your palm, similar to Spider-Man’s web-shooters or a wristwatch worthy of James Bond.

Make sure your kids know how to apply hand sanitizer properly. Stanford Children’s Health recommends the following steps:

  1. Put a dab of hand sanitizer the size of a quarter on your palm.
  2. Rub the sanitizer into your palm, on the back of hands, and in between fingers until the sanitizer is dry.
Hand Germs Sanitizer Disinfect

3. Teach Social Distancing

The CDC advises everyone to maintain a physical distance of 6 feet from others. However, on March 19, 2021, the CDC lowered social distancing guidelines for children to 3 feet in situations where mask-wearing is universal.

While it’s relatively easy for adults to see why social distancing is crucial, younger children often have difficulty understanding why they can’t get close to their friends. And according to Henry Ford Health Systems, teens’ as-yet-developed prefrontal cortexes can make them feel invincible, leading them to take social distancing less seriously.

Explain Why

Start by giving your child a simple explanation of why it’s essential to stay away from others.

For small children, explain that while all of us have germs, sometimes we can get germs that make us sick. If friends have these germs and they cough or sneeze, we can breathe in those germs and get sick ourselves.

Understanding the why behind social distancing might be easier for tweens and teens, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to do it. This age group often rebels against anything parents and teachers advise them to do, and they might believe that since they’re younger, they’re not at risk of contracting the disease or that if they do, they won’t get very sick.

Explain that although their risk of severe complications is low, they can still bring the virus home and infect others in their family, including you.

It can also help to ask them what they want to do with their friends and why. Giving them the time and space to talk about what they want — and really listening to what they have to say — makes them feel like an adult. Once you find out what they want to do, work together to come up with a way they can do the activity safely, even if it requires modification to keep every member of your household safe.

Use Visuals

Kids, especially younger children, might have a hard time visualizing what 3 feet looks like, so use a yardstick or measuring tape to show them how far they need to stay away from others.

You can also create a collage to help younger children see what social distancing looks like. Cut figures from a magazine, and glue them on a picture of a park or schoolyard (either one that you draw or another picture from the magazine,) keeping the figures as far apart as possible.

4. Teach Mask Safety

A June 2020 study published in Health Affairs analyzed COVID-19 infection rates in 15 states and Washington, D.C., between March 31, 2020, and May 22, 2020, and compared that with state government mandates for facial mask use. Researchers found that communities that implemented face mask mandates experienced lower infection rates compared to communities that had no such mandate.

Face masks can help slow the spread of COVID-19, especially in situations where social distancing is hard to maintain, such as on the bus or at school. The CDC also states that face masks protect the wearer, in addition to those around them. You can teach your children to wear masks, but it takes some practice and repetition.

Explain Why

Start by explaining why face masks are so essential. Use language appropriate for their age level — and keep it simple with younger children. For example, you might say, “Wearing a mask helps protect us from germs. It also helps protect your friends at school.” Regardless of their age, give them the chance to ask questions.

Occupational therapist Kara Miller and pediatric psychologist Parker Huston, writing for Nationwide Children’s Hospital, suggest that parents focus on positive behavior with older children by explaining that “we’re keeping our germs to ourselves,” and that we’re all trying to pitch in to stop the spread of germs.

Miller and Huston also advise that parents and caregivers avoid using scary language or frightening images of what might happen if people don’t wear masks.

And teens can probably understand some of the science behind the masks. Healthline recommends showing them pages on the subject from the CDC’s website, then having a family meeting to discuss what they read.

Show Children How to Wear a Mask

If your child is wearing a mask to school, it’s vital they know how to put on and take off their mask safely. According to the CDC, you should:

  1. Wash your hands before you put on your mask.
  2. Put it over your nose and mouth, secure it under your chin, and fasten it with the head ties or adjust the ear loops as needed.
  3. Try to fit it snugly against the sides of your face.
  4. Make sure you can breathe easily.
  5. When taking off your mask, untie the ties or take off the ear loops. Handle the mask only by the ties or ear loops. Lift the mask off your face and put it in a bag to be laundered at home.
  6. Be careful not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth when taking off your mask.
  7. Wash your hands immediately after taking off your mask.

Your child also needs to know the do’s and don’ts of wearing a mask safely.

  • Don’t Touch. Ensure your child understands they should avoid touching the outside of their mask, which could be contaminated.
  • Don’t Share or Trade. Parents are always trying to teach their kids to share. But your kids need to know that sharing doesn’t apply to masks.
  • Label Masks Clearly. Put your child’s name on each of their masks so they can’t get mixed up with someone else’s.
  • Have a Backup. Your child should have a backup face mask in their backpack in case their primary mask is lost, wet, or soiled. They also need to store masks in a small cloth washing machine-safe bag.

Play With Masks

Children often learn through play. Children’s Health suggests making a play mask for a favorite doll or stuffed animal (or using one you already have on hand) and letting your child practice putting the mask on their toy. That can help normalize the situation and help them process their feelings about the mask.

As they play, listen to what they say and watch what they do. This play time can give you critical clues about how they’re really feeling.

Another way to normalize mask-wearing is to wear a mask while at home with your children. That can help them get used to how people look with a mask on and make them feel more comfortable. Remember, as a parent or caregiver, you’re a primary role model in your child’s life. If they see you wearing a mask comfortably and consistently, they will mimic the behavior.

Today shared one father’s clever trick for getting his kids used to wearing masks for longer periods. Leland Michael, a math teacher in Iowa, told his kids they were only allowed screen time if they wore a mask while watching or playing.

Either way, it’s a win-win for parents: Either your kids will get used to wearing a mask for longer periods, or they’ll spend less time sitting in front of a screen. This tactic could be particularly helpful with tweens and teens, giving them time to evaluate different types of masks to find the most comfortable models.

Let Your Child Choose a Mask

To avoid power struggles over mask-wearing, have several masks in different colors and designs at home so your child can choose which one they want to wear each day.

However, it’s important to follow safety guidelines when choosing a mask. According to the CDC, the bests masks are:

  • Nonmedical disposable masks
  • Masks that fit properly, with no gaps around the sides of your face
  • Masks made with breathable fabric (like cotton)
  • Masks made with tightly woven fabric (that don’t let light pass through)
  • Masks with two to three layers
  • Masks with inner filter pockets

Masks can also quickly become wet during cold weather, which makes them less effective. Make sure your kids have several replacement masks in their backpacks to use after outdoor activities like recess or gym.

Some child-size reusable masks to consider include:

Before ordering any face masks for your child, make sure you look at measurements carefully to ensure you’re getting the right size.

Keep in mind that many tweens and teens can wear adult-size masks. There are many places to buy adult face masks online, and letting older kids choose a design they like increases the chance they’ll actually wear it. You can also let older kids make a DIY mask if they’re feeling crafty.

With the right skills, making a homemade mask can ensure a perfect fit, and showing off a homemade mask to friends might make them feel empowered and more in control of a situation that often feels out of control.

You can also purchase a kids face mask lanyard from a place like Etsy or Amazon. A face mask lanyard attaches to your child’s face mask and goes around their neck to help ensure the mask doesn’t get lost when removed or contaminate other surfaces, such as a desk or table. You can personalize many of the children’s face mask lanyards on Etsy with your kid’s name.

Adulting Putting On Mask For Student Boy

5. Teach Sneezing Etiquette

The CDC recommends sneezing into the crook of your elbow when you don’t have a tissue handy. That can be challenging to get younger kids to do, though.

Frank Esper, a child and adolescent doctor at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Pediatric Infectious Diseases, says that one easy way to help small kids remember good sneezing etiquette is to teach them to cough and sneeze like Dracula. The idea is simple yet highly visual, and it can help kids remember how to safely cough or sneeze.

The CDC recommends that you cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow when you don’t have a tissue. And this position looks very similar to Dracula pulling his cape across his face.

When you demonstrate this technique to your kids, make it as fun and memorable as possible. Use a beach towel as a cape, put on your Dracula voice, and give them the evil eye as you cough or sneeze into your elbow. They’ll laugh and, hopefully, remember what to do when it’s their turn.

6. Teach Kids Not to Touch

According to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control, of the 26 people they studied, the average person touched their face 23 times per hour, and 44% of those touches were to mucous membranes (such as eyes, nose, and mouth), where germs can enter the body easily. And those were medical students who should know better.

Parents and caregivers the world over know kids touch their faces all the time. However, there are some tricks and tools you can use to get them to stop.

Use Tissue

Start by making sure they go to school with plenty of tissue. These pocket-size packs of Kleenex are perfect for slipping into their backpack or desk. If they don’t have to get up to grab a tissue from the teacher’s desk, they’re more likely to use one.

Make It a Game

It can help to turn this into a game. Tell your kids you’ll be watching what they do. Every time you catch them touching their face, eyes, mouth, or nose with unclean hands, you’ll dock them a point. Whoever has the least points docked by the end of the day gets a special prize or treat.

While you can only play this game when you’re with them, it’s an excellent way to encourage the behavior you want. Hopefully, they’ll eventually limit touching these areas over time. As with any new skill, children need constant guidance and plenty of repetition to learn.

Give Them a Fidget Toy

Another strategy is to give your child a fidget toy to play with while they’re at their desk. If their hands are busy with the fidget toy, they’re less likely to rub their eyes or pick their nose while they’re listening to the teacher.

There’s an endless number of fidget toys on Amazon, so browse through them to find one that would appeal to your child. Keep in mind that some schools don’t allow fidget toys. They might also be banned during the pandemic to prevent kids from sharing toys. Talk to your child’s teacher before purchasing one to make sure it’s allowed.

7. Get a Flu Shot

Each year, families wonder if they should get a flu shot. However, for many people, it’s a necessity. Getting a flu shot can help you and your children avoid illness and missed days at work and school. The CDCestimates that a flu shot reduces your likelihood of illness by 40% to 60%.

The CDC estimates that a flu shot reduces your likelihood of illness by 40% to 60%.

The flu shot can’t protect you from COVID-19, and you can still get the flu even if you get the vaccination. However, if you contract the virus, the flu shot can help you get less sick and shorten your recovery time.

8. Limiting the Spread of Germs at Home

While you must teach your kids how to stay healthy and prevent the spread of germs at school, you also need to take steps to limit the spread of germs within your home.

It can help lower the risk your child picks up a germ at home and spreads it to classmates and teachers at school. It also models good behaviors for your children and shows them you value hygiene and cleanliness.

Disinfect Regularly

Clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces with antibacterial wipes or bleach daily. That’s especially vital for doorknobs, remote controls, computer keyboards, and desks or tables where the kids sit down to do homework.

It’s also crucial to both clean and disinfect surfaces in your home. Cleaning reduces the number of germs on a surface, and disinfecting kills the germs that are left. To clean and disinfect safely, the CDC advises you to take these steps:

  1. Wear reusable or disposable gloves when cleaning.
  2. Clean using soap and water, then use a disinfectant (such as Clorox wipes or bleach) to wipe down surfaces.
  3. Clean or launder reusable cleaning cloths according to the manufacturer’s directions. If using paper towels, throw them away immediately.
  4. Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water.

Keep Tissues Accessible

Keep tissues in easy-to-reach areas, and instruct your kids to use a tissue whenever they need to sneeze or blow their nose and then throw the tissue away immediately. Reusing it or putting it on a tabletop will spread germs.

Stay Hydrated

Make sure you and your kids stay hydrated. Drinking lots of water, especially during the dry winter, keeps mucus membranes moist, and this mucus is what helps keep germs and bacteria from gaining a foothold in your body.

Disinfect Kitchen Sponges

The innocuous kitchen sponge is probably one of the germiest things in your home. A 2017 study published in Scientific Reports found that regular kitchen sponges host a remarkable array of microbial diversity, and they even harbor pathogens such as salmonella, staphylococcus, and E. coli.

Replace your sponges each week or disinfect them in the microwave (on high for two minutes). Using a fresh dishrag each day instead of a sponge also cuts down on the amount of bacteria you spread.

9. Know When to Keep a Sick Child Home

Your child woke up with a runny nose and a light cough. Is it allergies? The common cold? COVID-19?

This year, many parents are hyperaware of every sniffle and cough due to the pandemic. And if your child doesn’t feel well, you must keep them home to avoid spreading illness to others, especially teachers and support staff who might be more vulnerable to severe illness.

There have been several reports of parents knowingly sending kids symptomatic with COVID-19 (or those who’ve already tested positive) to school. On Sept. 25, 2020, The Miami Herald reported on schools around the country that had to close again because parents deliberately sent their sick children to school.

Exposing classmates, teachers, and support staff means they also have to miss out on work or school for two weeks. And it could endanger their lives.

So when should you keep your child home from school to reduce the spread of illness? According to the CDC, you should look out for common COVID-19 symptoms, which can include:

  • Fever or chills
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue

Children can experience some of these symptoms if they have COVID-19, or they might have no symptoms at all. Many of these symptoms also show up with the seasonal flu and common cold.

If you’re in doubt about keeping your child home from school, follow the guidelines issued by your school or call your pediatrician for advice.

And it should go without saying that if your child or anyone in your household or someone you’ve had close contact with in the previous 14 days tests positive for the disease, you should quarantine for the CDC-recommended two weeks (14 days) from the last date of potential exposure or until you test negative and a physician clears you from quarantine.

Final Word

This winter, we’re seeing a surge of additional COVID-19 infections. On Jan. 27, 2021, CNN reported that January was the worst month on record for COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began.

However, there is good news. We have the power to save lives and limit the spread of COVID-19 along with other illnesses, such as the common cold and seasonal flu, by washing hands, social distancing, and wearing masks.

Our children also have an influential role to play in stopping the spread of germs. By explaining why these habits are so crucial and giving them the knowledge and tools to do so safely, we empower them to make a difference in their family, school, and community.


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Heather Levin is a writer with over 15 years experience covering personal finance, natural health, parenting, and green living. She lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina with her husband and two young sons, where they're often wandering on frequent picnics to find feathers and wildflowers.