As hungry first-graders lined up for lunch at Tarwater Elementary School, Camryn Carillo, 6, squirted globs of hand sanitizer into their palms. It wasn’t the first time the children at the Chandler school had sanitized their hands Tuesday.
Earlier, before making edible marshmallow snowmen, teacher Wendi Lyle had also doled out some of the gel from an economy-sized bottle near her door.
“I gave them each their own stick to spread (the frosting) and told them not to lick,” she said, before distributing baby wipes for hand washing.
In the annual fight against cold and flu germs, hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes have become almost as common in East Valley classrooms as pencils and paper.
Teachers, after all, are desperate to control the spread of germs in their classrooms.
“The majority of our teachers use (hand sanitizer) because the way our cafeterias are set up, we don’t have sinks outside. So teachers are doing hand washing in the classroom and then the antibacterial thing,” said Marilee McCracken, principal at Sequoya Elementary School in Scottsdale.
A recent study by public health and safety firm NSF International found nearly half of teachers said it was harder to get students to use soap during hand washing than it was to get them to do homework.
That’s why 80 percent of teachers use the sanitizing gels, according to the NSF International report.
“We use it before we go to lunch. One first-grade teacher uses it first thing in the morning,” Lyle said. “In first grade, we take class trips to the bathrooms, and then we make them all wash their hands, even if they didn’t use the bathroom.”
Antibacterial wipes are key, too, said Cheryl Schiefer, a third-grade teacher at Tempe’s Aguilar Elementary School. She puts bleach-based wipes on her wish list for parents who want to help with backto-school supplies and wipes down classroom desks at least once each week.
The wipes are necessary to clean the many shared items like computer keyboards and mouses, pencils and textbooks, she said.
“If you were to track an entire day, you would see how many things are common — it’s amazing,” she said, adding that she enlists the help of students to wipe down items like earphones.
But the object with the most germs at school isn’t on Schiefer’s checklist. According to NSF International, it’s the drinking fountain. That doesn’t surprise Chuck Simonette, director of custodial services in the Mesa Unified School District, who said drinking fountain spouts get an extra scrubbing each night.
“A lot of the younger elementary kids put their mouths right on the faucet. That’s a problem with us,” he said.
It’s also why some experts suggest giving children bottled water to take to school instead.
Simonette said custodians make sure to clean germ-catchers like spigots and doorknobs nightly, and they use hospitalgrade disinfectant to clean everything in the restrooms. “Germ-free is not a possibility,” he said. “But what we can do is reduce the spread of viruses.”
Still, some East Valley parents have worried that their children’s schools do not provide enough hand soap or paper towels to do the job.
Diane Weightman said her daughter, a freshman at Gilbert’s Highland High School, has often found the hand soap dispenser empty.
“Not being allowed to wash their hands or having soap supplies ... is absurd,” she said.
Data from the Maricopa Department of Environmental Services backs up her concerns. When department inspectors make their annual visits to school bathrooms, many find at least one bathroom out of soap.
The most common minor violations in the 2006 reports were the lack of soap, paper towels, and hot water for hand washing.
Inspectors found that 24 Mesa schools, including charter schools, needed to refill or fix some aspect of their bathrooms in order to provide for proper handwashing. Eleven of those were schools out of soap in at least one bathroom.
Eleven bathrooms in Chandler, eight in Scottsdale and seven in Gilbert faced similar shortages.
The Apache Junction Unified School District and the Tempe Elementary School District had the fewest violations, with just one school each lacking soap or towels.
Simonette said keeping soap full throughout the day can be difficult because the liquid soap cartridges do not indicate when they are running low.
“If there are only 40 hand washings left in there and 200 kids, obviously it’s going to run out during the day,” he said, adding that each school has facility assistants who check the bathrooms throughout the day, keeping supplies stocked.
Ron Klein, health surveillance supervisor with the Maricopa County Health Department, said keeping school bathrooms fully stocked is key to keeping kids healthy. Antibacterial products, he said, are a close runner-up.
“I would hope (hand sanitizers) wouldn’t take the place of soap and water because when you have grossly dirty hands, soap and water is the best,” he said. “But under supervision, in the classroom, I think they are great.”