GGlobal crises often bring surprises to schools. The first world war signaled the high number of young soldiers who could not read or write. In World War II, families in middle class countries despaired when evacuated children appeared to be malnourished and full of lice. After both, politicians decided to improve their lives: concentrating schools more on literacy and introducing milk and school nurses on a daily basis.
Pandemics, like wars, temporarily change our way of life. The change happens quickly. Schools it may even have closed when you read this. This will be difficult and, if for a long time and in isolation, there are real concerns about safeguarding and loss of learning, but we must not forget the schools closed for a period of six weeks each year and families deal with it. What worries you in the long run is what happens even when schools are open.
The official guideline is that everyone should wash their hands regularly with soap and water while singing congratulations twice. The song may not be official, but it helps children to wash for the recommended 20 seconds. But this week, the perception has emerged that one in three schools generally does not have soap and hot water in their bathrooms.
When news broke that Covid-19 was in the UK and the number of infected people was increasing, Teacher Tapp, the daily research application I co-founded, asked more than 6,000 teachers about precautions at their schools. An alarming 37% said they did not have hot water and soap available to students. Soap is not a legal requirement in bathrooms and, as schools are struggling for money, it is an easy thing to cut. Access to hot water is legally required, but speaking to teachers, it is clear that the old plumbing systems do not provide hot water – or at least they are not fast enough to reach the tap before the child disappears.
More, state regulations that schools need to have only one sink per 30 students. Line up each of these children, relentlessly enforce a quick change in 20 seconds, and you'll need at least 10 minutes to clean everyone's hands. Since the average class break is only 20 minutes, this does not leave much time for eating, playing or using the bathroom. Which may explain why almost no high schools have been actively teaching hand washing for 10 days.
In addition, only one in five teachers said the fabrics were available for children. Less than a third said that their school was offering hand hygiene facilities: “Everyone was left without a hand sanitizer. We can't get it from anywhere, and we probably couldn't afford it anyway, "said a senior leader.
Fortunately, primary children are increasingly washing their hands at the entrance and before leaving school – a job that is easier for children's classrooms with their own sink. A friend observed how good it was to hold her son's hand on the way home from school now that his hands were no longer "sweaty and dirty".
The coming months will be challenging and the focus will be on the extent to which schools can continue. But once the pandemic is gone, it’s worth remembering that almost 22 million school days every year they are lost to colds. About 40% of children receive threadworm, a parasitic infection that causes a distractively itchy background. Both problems are reduced by hand washing, along with more severe respiratory viruses and tummy problems.
Other countries already know this. In Japan, schools are equipped with long washbasins, where students and teachers wash their hands several times a day. In Nigeria, after the Ebola crisis, hand washing in schools has increased more than 60%, with children more likely to participate if their friends were also washing their hands.
The next few months will be a tough lesson in patience and acceptance. But, as in the two world wars, it may be that a better future is on the other side. At the very least, it should be one where every child is expected and, crucially, is able to wash their hands regularly.