When Karen Shein sends her two children off to elementary school in a few weeks, they will be packing more than just the usual back-to-class gear.
Tucked into their school bags will be alcohol-based hand sanitizer, little bottles of insurance against the onslaught of germs they are sure to encounter as kids once again gather en masse for the annual September rite of passage.
And this fall, with a surge in cases of influenza A (H1N1), also known as swine flu, possibly in the offing, keeping hands clean could be more critical than ever to prevent children getting sick or spreading the virus to others.
“With the pandemic,” says Dr. Bonnie Henry of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, “we’ve been saying it’s really important this year more than others, even, for you to have the ability for children to wash their hands.”
But while public health officials press home the message that good hand hygiene is one of the best ways to beat this bug, not all schools are equipped to provide the basics needed.
“I’ve taught the kids how to wash their hands properly and also how to use a paper towel to shut off the tap and exit the washroom after their hands have been cleaned,” Shein says.
But there’s a problem: while washrooms in their Toronto school are equipped with soap dispensers, there are no paper towels, she says.
Years of budget restraints have forced many Canadian schools to trim expenses — and often that has meant stripping items like costly paper towels.
Henry, director of Public Health Emergency Management at the BCCD, says finding enough resources is an issue for schools all across the country.
“Many schools now share a cleaning service between a number of schools and they don’t have somebody that’s dedicated to their own facility,” she says.
Chris Broadbent, manager of health and safety for the Toronto District School Board, agrees cost and vandalism are concerns when it comes to stocking washrooms in its 560 elementary and secondary schools.
While students aren’t encouraged to bring their own hand sanitizer, schools can order it from the board’s distribution warehouse, Broadbent says.
“With H1N1, a lot of schools took the precaution of providing one for every classroom, but it’s under the control of the teacher, obviously,” he says. “And it’s there to support handwashing, not as an alternative.”