Covid-19 reveals the alarming truth that many children can’t wash their hands at school

Global crises often bring surprises for schools. The first world war flagged up the high number of young soldiers who couldn’t read or write. In the second world war, middle-class country families despaired when evacuated children showed up malnourished and riven with lice. In the aftermath of both, politicians determined to make life better: focusing schools more on literacy and introducing daily milk and school nurses.

Pandemics, like wars, temporarily change our way of life. Change happens fast. Schools may even have closed by the time you read this. This will be difficult, and if it’s for a long time and in isolation there are real concerns about safeguarding and loss of learning, but let’s not forget schools shut for a six-week period each year and families do cope. What is of long-term concern is what happens even when schools are open.

Official guidance is that everyone should be regularly washing their hands with soap and water while singing Happy Birthday twice. The song may not be official, but it helps children wash for the recommended 20 seconds. But this week the realisation has emerged that one in three schools don’t usually have soap and hot water in their bathrooms.

When the news broke that Covid-19 was in the UK and infected numbers were rising, Teacher Tapp, the daily survey app that I co-founded, asked over 6,000 teachers about precautions in their school. An alarming 37% said they did not have hot water and soap available for pupils. Soap is not a legal requirement in washrooms and given schools are struggling for cash, it’s an easy thing to cut. Hot water access is legally required, but speaking to teachers, it is clear that old plumbing systems are not providing hot water – or at least not fast enough to get to the tap before the child has disappeared.

Plus, regulations state that schools need to have just one sink per 30 pupils. Line up every one of those kids, ruthlessly enforce a quick changeover at 20 seconds, and you need at least 10 minutes to get everyone’s hands clean. Given the average school break is only 20 minutes, that doesn’t leave much time for eating, playing, or going to the toilet. Which might explain why almost no secondary schools were actively teaching handwashing even 10 days ago.

On top of that, only one in five teachers said tissues were available for children. Less than a third said their school was offering hand-sanitising facilities: “Everyone has run out of sanitiser. We can’t source it from anywhere, and we probably couldn’t afford it anyway,” one senior leader said.

Thankfully, primary children are increasingly washing hands on entry and before leaving school – a job that’s easier for infant classrooms with their own sink. One friend noted how nice it was to hold her young son’s hand on the walk home from school now that his palms were no longer “sweaty and grimy”.

The coming months will be challenging and the focus will be on the extent to which schools can keep going at all. But once the pandemic has cleared, it’s worth us remembering that nearly 22 million school days are lost every year to colds. About 40% of children get threadworm, a parasitic infection that causes a distractingly itchy bottom. Both problems are reduced by hand-washing, along with more serious respiratory viruses and tummy bugs.

Other countries, already know this. In Japan, schools are equipped with long wash basins where pupils and teachers wash their hands several times a day. In Nigeria, after the Ebola crisis, handwashing in schools rose by over 60%, with children more likely to take part if their friends were also washing their hands.

The next few months are going to be a hard lesson in patience and acceptance. But, as with the two world wars, it may be that a better future sits on the other side. At the very least it should be one where every child is expected and, crucially, is able, to wash their hands regularly.

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