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School Classroom or Germ Factory?

“Don’t put your mouth on it!”

No matter where we were, if I was headed to a water fountain to get a drink, I heard my mother’s warning. To this day, I’m always wary of how close my mouth is to the spigot and I completely stay away from those fountains that lack the proper pressure to propel the water an adequate distance away from the germy metal.

Like most things, it turns out my mother was right. And as we send our kids back to school this fall, a lot of focus will be on reducing the spread of germs. But what’s the best way to do that?

8 germiest places at school

While kids often have questionable bathroom habits, the bathroom is not really the major culprit in the spread of germs. NSF International conducted an experiment at two Michigan elementary schools, taking bacterial samples from several different surfaces and common items kids have contact with during their daily activities.

I can almost see the validated expression on my mother’s face as I type this list. Here are the top eight germiest surfaces they found in these schools:

  1. Water fountain spigot (in a classroom)
  2. Water fountain spigot (in the cafeteria)
  3. Cafeteria tray
  4. Cold water faucet handle
  5. Hot water faucet handle
  6. Cafeteria plate
  7. Computer keyboard in the classroom
  8. Toilet seat

What a quick glance at this list doesn’t tell you is the major difference in the number of bacteria found on these items, which are measured in colony forming units, or CFU. The water fountain in the classroom rang the bell at 2.7 million CFU, while the toilet seat was a relatively clean surface at only 3,200 CFU.

The cost of clean

So, what do we learn from this? Aside from never again drinking from the water fountain in your kid’s third-grade classroom, it shows that schools need constant vigilance to help create and sustain healthy environments for their teachers and students.

After all, germy schools mean more kids with colds and other illnesses, and that means more absences. And not just for students, who lose out on valuable educational hours in the classroom, but also teachers who are drinking from the same water fountains and picking up the same cafeteria trays.

The Center for American Progress estimates that 5.3 percent of teachers in the United States are absent on any given day, which translates to a minimum of $4 billion in extra costs for substitute teachers and additional administrative costs.

The organization also looked at a state-by-state comparison, ranking them by the percentage of teachers who are absent more than 10 days. Arkansas came in at number three on the list, with 48.5 percent of our teachers absent more than 10 school days each year. That kind of stat can make a big impact on your school district’s bottom line—and not in a good way.

Combating the challenge of absenteeism is not an easy one, but much of it starts with a thorough process for cleaning each of your schools. Your cleaning partner needs to give the same kind of attention to the water fountain as they give the toilet seats, and communication between the crew and your staff is paramount to success.

Look for a janitorial cleaning partner that implements some kind of formal feedback mechanism so your teachers can easily communicate any special needs, or let the crew know if they need to give any area a little extra attention. The company should also be able to easily demonstrate their process to ensure every area is appropriately cleaned.

While you’ll never be able to eliminate the spread of germs at schools – after all, there’s always at least one kid who puts his entire mouth on the water fountain (my mother would have a heart attack) – you’ll at least be able to ensure your building is as clean and healthy as it can be. And that means more teachers showing up to teach and more students ready to learn—and isn’t that main goal in the end?

Dave Harvey is the president and CEO of SG360, a facility services company specializing in janitorial, facilities management, restoration services, and inventory management. How do you reduce the spread of germs at your school? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page or on Twitter @ServiceGroup360.