Posted by: Francis Koster Published: February 6, 2012

Reducing School Absence by Washing Hands

Reducing School Absence by Washing Hands

by Francis P. Koster, Ed. D. 

There is a real documented opportunity to better our society by teaching kids one simple thing.

Start with the fact that approximately 1/5 of our population either attends or works in schools.(1) Wow.  Whatever happens in school connects to a very large number of our citizens.

Add to that the fact that each year over 22 million K-12 school days are lost because kids are sick[2] - many of them from illnesses they picked up from each other.

Parents may need to skip work to tend to them, causing a reduction in family income.   And since these kids have teachers who also are exposed to the germs, the teachers get sick, causing the school system to hire substitutes, which is expensive.  So if someone could figure out how to reduce the number of teacher illness days, they would save the school system taxpayers money.

So here is how this can come about.  In school, you teach the kids how to wash their hands.  A brief focus on this for a few months can cut absences in half and save money for years to come![3]

In order to be effective in controlling the spread of germs, scientists have found that hands have to be washed for at least 20 seconds, using soap.  About 6 out of 10 girls say they wash their hands after using the toilet , and about half the guys.[4]    So they say.  The other half admit they don't.

If you actually have someone watch them, a different picture pops up.    Observers who stood nearby pretending to put make up on, or drying their hands,  found that less than one in 50 actually did the full 20 seconds. [5]  So, only about half say they do it, and of those who say they do it, only 1 in 50 do it right.  In other words 99 out of 100 did not do it or did it wrong.

However, there are many documented success stories where this situation is changed. 

In Detroit, it was found that youngsters who washed their hands 4 times a day had 1/4 fewer sick days for breathing problems, and only 1/2 the previous absences for upset tummy.  The only thing the school did was have the kids wash first thing in the morning, before lunch, before recess, and before going home.[6]

Another study of 290 students from five independent schools used a commercial hand washing product in the classroom.  Again, the number of absences was cut in half.[7]

And in Denmark, where a very scientific study was done in 2007, the researcher took two schools, and worked with the teachers to encourage the kids to wash their hands in one school, but not the other.  The school which taught hand washing had a dramatic drop in absences, particularly among the students who already had a lot of sick days.   The other school in the study did nothing, and their absentee rate stayed the same.  But the next year, another surprise surfaced. 

The researcher went back to the same schools in 2008, and this time reversed the schools - the one that got hand washing instruction last time got nothing this time, but  the one that got nothing the first time was given the hand washing program.    Absentee  rates at the second school, which did not get the instruction the first time, had a dramatic drop. And here is the surprising part — the school that had received instruction in 2007 but not 2008 continued to enjoy low absentee rate. 

The impact of teaching hand washing for just a brief time one year had carried over into the second year. What a trail of success!

There are many other success stories out there, which we badly need, because children used to have their own desks, and textbooks. Now they share computer terminals.  It is easier for bad stuff to spread through the classroom.  Hand washing is more important than ever.

 You can find a wonderful list of coaching materials and videos to help start such a program by using the internet and searching on (or have your kids search on)  "school hand washing programs resources”. 

It is time to clean up our act. If we want the future to be brighter, you can start in your own home or church, and you can inquire about the practices in our schools. Think of the healthier future you can help create!


[1] U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics

[3] AJIC: American Journal of Infection Control
Volume 30, Issue 4 , Pages 217-220, June 2002

[4] Guinan ME, McGuckin-Guinan M, Sevareid A. Who washes hands after using the bathroom? American Journal of Infection Control. 1997;24(5):424-425 

[5] American Association for Infection Control, "Handwashing among female college students", Draniewicz and Dundes

[6] Project Handwashing Leaders Guide, Colorado State University Extension Service, January 2001

[7] AJIC: American Journal of Infection Control. 30(4):217-220, June 2002. Guinan, Maryellen a,b; McGuckin, Maryanne Dr ScEd, MT (ASCP) c; Ali, Yusef PhD d

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