Hand Sanitizer, the Elementary School Classroom, and My Hatred of the Stuff

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I hate hand sanitizer.

I know that seems like an incredibly strong emotion over such a mundane hygiene item, but it’s true. When a kid goes through a giant bottle of hand sanitizer in three days, when kids bawl over missing pieces of their hand sanitizer collection, a teacher misses the good ol’ days when the kids bathed their hands in the local creek. Because we all know that today that means another load of hand sanitizer.

But, alas, the stuff just appears. I apparently have very little power over our back-to-school lists and donation hand sanitizer is just what is done these days. When? When did this start? Back in my day I washed my hands before lunch. I dutifully washed my hands after using the restroom. I even used those terrifying towels. Those of us without tricky immune systems never had our mothers urging us to keep a bottle of the stuff in our pencil boxes to be used approximately ever thirty seconds. I made it to adulthood without hand sanitizer.

Did I have a kid go through a giant bottle of hand sanitizer in three days? Yes, yes I did. The first day of school arrived with my parents bringing in bags of school supplies including those awful bottles of hand sanitizer. Never mind I have 3 dozen left over from last year, we got more. My awesome aid set to the task of putting most of everything into storage for when needed. Except one kid. She held her giant bottle to her heart and insisted her mom told her to keep it in her chair pocket. I figured, eh, sure. And, oh, did she make use of that. She brought it forth to her table like a precious treasure, lovingly, with grace. She squirted a bunch into her hands. And did it again. And again. Now apparently she will die for not having her own personal hand sanitizer.

And the collections? What is with that? Every freaking scent, fine if you’re strolling through Bath and Body Works, but when you’re a second grader with a fixation problem these little anti-bacterial jewels lead to heartbreak and tears when, gasp, one gets lost. How do you explain to a weeping child it’s just two ounces of alcohol?

I’m not even getting into the compulsion for half the class to run for hand sanitizer every time we get into line or move to the carpet.

What happened last year? What are these parents teaching? Why are what should be grubby little kids so obsessed with their hands being clean?

If only I would wave my magic teacher yardstick and wish all the hand sanitizer away.Then we could return to the glory days of cycles of filth followed by a nice scrub with soap and water.

Unfortunately the matter isn’t so simple.

Hand sanitizer has become an an integral part of the elementary classroom, visible to me over the decade since I began and am currently teaching. When I started in 2007, hand sanitizer was an after-thought. Now, I have donated bottles filling up the space under my class sink.

Schools are germy places filled with germy kids. We get that. No one wants sicks kids, particularly families where both parents are working and kids can’t just stay home willy-nilly. With the anti-bacterical, germ-killing promises of hand sanitizer comes the hope of zero sick children and a lot less germs being exchanged. It all sounds so much better than soap and water!

What does the research say? A search of the Great Internet focused mainly on sites with “.org” or “.gov” seems to suggest that the experts really do prefer soap and water. Hooray! When soap and water are unavailable, hand sanitizers are considered perfectly adequate alternatives.

But there is a catch.

Efficacy depends on the method and the quality. Are students washing their hands correctly? Is the hand sanitizer a decent sort?

I’m currently teaching my 3-year-old how to wash her hands as part of our Horrible Potty Training Odyssey. She’s not that great, ultimately preferring to get the pretty strawberry soap on her hands and stick those hands under cold water.  I’d expect 7- and 8-year-olds to be better, but not all are.

We all ought to know the drill. Wet hands, apply soap, scrub hands thoroughly for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, and rinse. Not smear your hands with soap and leave the restroom. Not race to see who can wash their hands the fastest. Not stare in wonder at the piles of foaming soap rising like mountains on your hands. Apply soap and scrub for 30 to 120 seconds!

The friction and soap then remove germs and grime, leading to hygienic paws.

I have heard from parents and teachers that kids (and people in general) are so awful at washing their hands that hand sanitizers are just easier to deal with. Heck, I found a couple of pages promoting hand sanitizers saying they will get hands cleaner.

But are kids even using hand sanitizers correctly? Is it even a good hand sanitizer?

To do its job, hand sanitizers need to have an alcohol concentration of AT LEAST 60%. This is the stuff that gets all the germ-killing action going on. Cheap brands don’t necessarily have this much alcohol. I’d love to research the efficacy of essential oil alternatives, but at this time with your standard bottle of sanitizer this is what I got.

So let’s say you have a bottle of hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol in it. Great. Now, your kiddos ought not to be slathering the stuff all over their hands like its a great sanitizer party. They need a palm-full each (I find this generally to be one pump) and then they need to be rubbing that stuff all over their hands until their hands are dry. No lakes, no throwing it in each others’ eyes (true story).

Right now you’re probably thinking I have terrible classroom management when it comes to hand sanitizer and you’re probably right. I promise I am trying to figure out to manage this stuff without banning it from my classroom. Surely it wouldn’t be a big deal if properly used.

But I am happy to report hand sanitizer still has issues. When a product’s job is to kill less than 100% of germs, it rather gives a false hope. A very miniscule false hope, but one just the same. The best way to keep away day-to-day germs of the classroom is to not be touching your face with gross hands. There is a worry that too much reliance on simply blocking most germs with hand sanitizer will create a lazy reliance on the stuff rather than encouraging a healthy spectrum of hygienic habits.

And let’s not forget the wisdom of our forefathers: We need to build up a reasonable resistance to germs. I just completed my first week of school and there is already something awful floating around the school. Yes, I’m wiping down my classroom. I even diffused some On Guard before school started. I’m taking sick kid complaints seriously.

But this is not atypical for the first little while back to school. Kids are faced with a new range of germs and their immune systems are learning how to deal with them. In short, we need the opportunity to build up our defenses. You’ve heard the tendency for kids in overly-clean homes to get sick more often. There’s a lot of truth to it.

By relying way too much on hand sanitizers, we may actually be opening ourselves and our kiddos to greater sickness.

Sensible treatment of germy situations and thoughtful hand washing, in my opinion, ought to handle most situations.

I’ll admit hand sanitizers probably have their place, but hand washing was good enough for eons of classrooms. All I see right now is a bunch of kids and families obsessed with those bottles and a total inability to wash hands.




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