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Consider this scenario: Tuesday, 10:45 a.m. Two children are sent home because they are experiencing runny noses, dry coughs, and muscle aches. By 2:15 p.m., three more children complain of the same symptoms. On Wednesday, eleven children stay home from school, and on Thursday the number of sick children reaches fifteen. By Friday, twenty-one children
and five teachers are sick with the flu.

Can this happen at your school? You bet. Will it happen this year? No one knows, not even the experts. Although you can’t predict when an outbreak of flu—or any other contagious disease—will occur, there are several steps you can take to help keep your students and staff healthy.

Control the Spread

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), getting a flu shot every year is the best protection against flu. In studies of healthy young adults, a flu shot prevents flu between 70 and 90 percent of the time.

To prevent the spread of the flu virus, it’s important to understand its symptoms and contagion periods. Flu symptoms include fever, headache, extreme fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and muscle aches. Problematically, these can also be the symptoms of common respiratory illnesses that are not as dangerous as the flu. You can’t rely on symptoms alone to determine if someone has the flu—only a doctor’s test can tell. To be on the safe side and control the spread of infection, it’s best to send children and staff home as soon as possible if they experience these symptoms.

Infection control is complicated by the fact that a person can be infected for a couple of days (one to four) before they show any flu symptoms. Infected adults can be contagious from the day before they experience symptoms to three to seven days after. Infected children can be contagious up to a week or longer.

Wash Your Hands!

Sometimes your mother’s low-tech advice is still the best—washing your hands is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infectious disease. What mom may not have known, however, is that there’s a right way to wash your hands. By teaching children to wash their hands properly, you give them a lifetime of protection against infection. Here’s how:


1. Use warm, running water and a dime-sized amount of mild, liquid soap.

2. Rub hands together until a lather appears, and scrub hands for at least 15 seconds.

3. Rinse hands under warm, running water.

4. Dry hands with a clean, disposable, paper towel.

5. Dispose of used towels in a trashcan lined with a plastic bag.

Many schools use hand sanitizers as part of their infection control procedures. If you use them, the FDA recommends that they are alcohol-based, and contain a concentration of 60 to 90 percent ethanol or isopropanol. Many commercial products contain only 40 percent ethanol; these products do not effectively kill germs, so read labels carefully.

Just how important is hand washing? The World Health Organization Writing Group reports that during a ten-week study conducted in 1998 of
420 school children in California, ages five to twelve, school absences due to infectious disease was 42 percent lower than normal. In this study, children were supervised during hand washing and also used hand sanitizers. With these increased precautions, gastrointestinal infections were reduced by 29 percent, and respiratory infections were reduced by 50 percent.

Be a Sport

Many sports, because they involve close contact and the potential for bleeding, present health risks at school. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) have developed guidelines for schools to follow before, during, and after sporting events to reduce the spread of infectious disease.

Before the event: Educate athletes about blood-borne pathogens. Insist

that athletes report all wounds immediately—this procedure is critical to everyone’s safety. If an athlete has an open wound or skin infection, bandage the area with a covering that is able to withstand the rigors of the sport. Wear protective equipment over areas of the body that bruise easily, such as elbows and hands.

During the event: Remove players who are actively bleeding and clean and treat their wounds immediately. Make sure coaches are trained in basic first aid and infection control, and that they follow standard precautions such as wearing sterile, non-latex gloves.

After the event: Attend to any bruises, cuts, and abrasions. Review the game, and determine if any injuries could have been prevented. If you see a pattern of preventable injuries, consider training your coaches and athletes to avoid such injuries.

Review Your Crisis Management Plan

If a flu pandemic or other crisis strikes, how well will your school function with reduced staff or even loss of staff and students? What would happen if you lost your head of school? Emotionally, these are difficult questions to answer, but thinking about them before a crisis occurs will help you cope should disaster strike.


The more days children are in school, the more they learn and grow. By following these infection control procedures, you can help reduce the number and severity of illnesses at your school. Plus, you teach children healthy habits that will protect them now and as adults.

Michael Swain is Senior Loss Control Specialist for Markel Insurance Company in Richmond, Virginia. Markel specializes in insurance

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Montessori Leadership magazine, the journal of the International Montessori Council