When Children Learn to Wash

When Children Learn to Wash Early in Life, We All Win

It was more than twenty years ago that I was the Chair Person of the health committee of the PTA at my children’s elementary school.  I focused on healthy diet and we served carrot sticks and healthy juice donated from a local health food store.  The dentist came to visit the children, and the local police came to talk about “stranger danger”.  It was a good year and we had some fun events for the young children.  As I got involved more and more in patient safety and learned from the experts about infection prevention, I approached the PTA leadership about an idea for a year-long project: that before lunch the teachers would say to the children, “If you would like to wash your hands, now is the time to do it.” I realized that children were never told to wash their hands and I was surprised that they weren’t even encouraged to wash.  The PTA leadership was supportive and even offered to donate wipes to the classroom so the children could at least wipe their hands before lunch.  We were never going to force the topic, but I thought it would be a good idea for those children, like my own, who were washing their hands before meals, to be encouraged to keep up that practice in school. I went with the PTA President to meet with the school principal and her response was “No”.  she explained that she would not give the teachers extra work and that the teachers would fight the additional assignment.  We explained that we could not force the children to do anything but suggest that they could wash before lunch.  The answer was “no”.

So, I began my task of having parents sign petitions.  I would go to sporting events and in the playgrounds after school, I collected hundreds of letters signed and addressed by parents.  I would fax them daily to the school superintendent in another building.  Parents would see me coming and say “Oh, here she comes” but willingly sign and share the petitions. 

With the pile of petitions that had been faxed to the school superintendent in my hands, I went back to the school principal.  While I was waiting to see her, the assistant principal, titled the Lead Teacher, asked what was going on. I explained to him what we were trying to do and he joined me to hear my conversation with the principal.  Again, I asked the principal — explaining that we were not looking to make hand-washing mandatory (though I wished it were) — we just wanted the teachers to encourage or support children who wanted to wash, at least mentioning to them that if they wanted to, they could.  Now she wasn’t saying no; instead, in front of her colleague, she had excuses such as:  “There is not enough time to have 25 children wash, we have to purchase more towels, we can’t make children wash their hands.” …………..

With the stack of petitions in my hands, I stood up and asked: yes or no, are you going to ask the teachers to suggest to the students before lunch that they wash their hands?”  The principal again said “no”.

I grabbed my coat, thanked the Lead Teacher for joining me and left the building. When I got in my car, I called my state representative and explained the situation.  Within an hour, the principal called me and said that there must have been a misunderstanding, of course the children can be given time to wash before lunch.

The next day, I turned in my resignation as a member of the PTA.

So why do I bring this up 20 years later?  Because those children may be parents now. If someone had listened to me twenty years ago, maybe we wouldn’t have to argue so strongly for hand-washing during this pandemic. Maybe, just maybe, if as soon as they’re old enough, we teach young people how to prepare for being patients, to know their medications, ask questions of their doctor and describe their symptoms accurately — and for even very young kids to wash their hands — maybe this pandemic (and the next one) would be easier to handle.  That’s all.

Learn more at TakeCHARGE

Pulse Center for Patient Safety Education Advocacy