While anyone can catch the flu, certain groups—including school-aged children—are at a higher risk. This is partly because children are exposed to a variety of germs each day at school. Germs can be spread through hand-to-hand contact and by touching contaminated surfaces. Kids often contract the flu from other children who are carrying the virus, or when they come into contact with toys, desks, or playground equipment that may be harboring germs. Indeed, many children are likely to return home sick after only a few days or weeks at school.
Though the flu is unpleasant for anyone, it can be especially difficult—even dangerous—for young children, especially those under the age of five. These children have a greater risk of potentially dangerous complications from the flu virus.
Complications such as ear infections, sinus infections, and even seizures are possible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20,000 children under the age of five are hospitalized every year for flu-related illnesses. In fact, more children go to the hospital because of the flu every year than any other vaccine-preventable illness. (CDC, 2012)
Fortunately, if you are a teacher, volunteer, or other education professional, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk for children in your classroom.
The CDC recommends that all children six months and older get a flu shot every year. For children who have asthma, heart disease, or other serious medical conditions, vaccination is especially important. Teachers, school nurses, and other school personnel also need to receive flu shots.
Consider posting signs around the classroom and sending notes home to remind parents that it's time to vaccinate. Talk to school administrators about hosting a seasonal flu vaccination day. Local public health departments often partner with schools to help increase the number of children vaccinated each year.
Teach Children to Wash Their Hands
Doctors agree that regular hand washing is one of the most important steps in preventing the spread of germs. Take time in the classroom to teach children the importance of good hand hygiene.
Children learn best not through lectures or warnings, but through games, song, stories, and examples. To help your children learn to regularly wash their hands, no matter where they are, try these tips:
Wash hands when returning to the classroom
Kids are exposed to a wide variety of items that have been touched by others by being outside, playing in the gym, and participating in PE class. Remind them to wash before and after meals, after using the restroom, and before beginning a new activity with classroom equipment. Let them see you washing your hands as often as possible.
Sing a song when soaping up
Teach them to sing "Happy Birthday," "Row Row Row Your Boat," or another fun song to judge how long they should spend soaping up. Then, teach them to dry their hands and use a paper towel to turn off the faucet.
Organize the classroom to make hand washing easy
Keep soap and paper towels stocked, with trashcans nearby. You might also consider providing hand sanitizer in areas where teachers and students can't get to a sink.
Let them hear it from someone else
During reading time, choose books about hand washing and germs that help teach the importance of not getting sick. Try Buddy Bear's Hand Washing Trouble by Marjorie T. Cooke, Wash Your Hands! by Tony Ross, or Germs Make Me Sick by Melvin Berger.
Make an art project out of it
Have children draw pictures of germs and tape them to various areas in the classroom where germs can be found.
Say it with stickers
Reward children for washing by creating a chart and hanging it above the sink. Children can add stickers by their names each time they wash.
Make it a part of their routine
Build in specific times during the day when all children wash their hands—such as after lunch and recess. Defining specific times will help make sure all children wash, and will help them get into the habit of regular washing.
Teach Children How to Cover Coughs and Sneezes
It used to be that when no tissues were available, children were taught to cough or sneeze into their hands. However, according to research published by Main Medical Center (MMC), germs can live on the palms for up to three hours. (MMC, 2012)
Today, healthcare professionals recommend that children and adults turn into their elbows or sleeves to cough or sneeze when tissues are not available. The material will stop the spread of droplets, which contain germs. Since the inside of the elbow rarely touches other surfaces, the likelihood of spreading the virus is greatly reduced.
Teach Children to Keep Their Hands Away from Their Faces
Talk to kids about how the nose and mouth are entryways into the body for germs. Make up stories about how bad germs are looking for ways to get into the child's "castle" through their lips, eyes, or nostrils, and that the best way is by hitching a ride on the fingers.
When you see a child's fingers around his or her face, gently remind them of the germs and encourage them to wash.
Teach Caution When it Comes to Sharing
One of the biggest lessons young children have to learn is how and when to share. While sharing toys can make children more generous human beings, it can also increase their odds of getting sick. Teach children when and what to share at school.
Food, beverages, and personal items, such as brushes, combs, toothbrushes, pencils, and clothes can harbor germs, and are best kept away from others. Teach children about personal space, and about keeping their personal belongings in their desks. Talk about how germs can live on toys, and consider a teaching activity in which all children help to wash classroom toys and tools.
Keep Classroom Toys and Tools Clean and Sanitized
School toys and equipment can be excellent hiding places for germs if they are not regularly cleaned and sanitized. Check your school policy, and then take charge of the cleanliness of your classroom.
Routinely clean and disinfect surfaces that are often touched
Countertops, desks, computer keyboards, phones, faucet handles, doorknobs, and cupboard handles are common hotspots for germs. Disinfecting wipes or warm soap and water will typically kill flu germs.
Have a routine cleaning schedule
Clean classroom toys and hands-on learning items once a week or at the end of the day these items are used.
Make sure the classroom has adequate cleaning supplies
Stay well stocked with paper towels, gloves, cleaning solutions, disinfecting solutions, and no-touch trashcans.
Encourage Sick Kids (and Adults) to Stay Home
When children get the flu, the CDC highly recommends keeping them home while they recover. Sending a sick child to school can spread the virus to other children, and delay recovery. Teachers and other education professionals who develop influenza should also stay home to avoid spreading the virus.
At the beginning of the school year, consider sending home instructions for parents regarding the flu. Let them know that it's best to wait at least 24 hours after the child's fever is gone before sending them back to school. If you have a child in the classroom who is obviously not feeling well, separate him or her from the other students until he or she can be picked up and taken home.
Most importantly, watch sick children carefully for signs of complications. If the child has difficulty breathing, appears limp or lethargic, shows signs of dehydration, or has a persistent fever, get medical help right away.