Washing Hands Is Key For Food Safety

By Darcia Harris Bowman — June 04, 2003 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

More than two years after an outbreak of E. coli poisoning sickened elementary students in Waukesha County, Wis., district Superintendent David S. Schmidt still calls the experience a “nightmare.”

It started with just two cases of potential exposure at the district’s 500- pupil Bethesda Elementary School, Mr. Schmidt said. Then, in a blink, an illness that can cause kidney failure and death in children had infected nearly two dozen students, landing four in the hospital and sending a ripple of panic through the community.

County public health officials suggested that a pupil with diarrhea may have contaminated the school salad bar, but Mr. Schmidt said no definitive conclusions were reached.

The moral of the story? “Don’t be lax about health in general as it relates to kids’ behavior— hand-washing in particular,” the superintendent said.

Health experts say hand-washing is one of the most important factors in controlling the spread of infectious microorganisms. It’s a safety measure stressed in training for school food-service employees and workers in food-processing plants.

It’s also a proven method for protecting children in an environment where illness and disease can spread rapidly.

A study of 290 students in five Pennsylvania elementary schools, published in the American Journal of Infection Control in June of last year, showed a 50 percent drop in school absences among those students who were educated about proper hand-washing and given access to hand-sanitizing solution in their classrooms.

‘Constant Reminders’

So, to avoid Waukesha County’s experience, health experts say schools simply need to make sure that students wash their hands— carefully, frequently, and always before they eat.

“Sounds simple, doesn’t it?” Mr. Schmidt said.

Think again.

Charlene W. Bruce, the director of food protection for the Mississippi health department, said that trying to persuade busy educators to monitor their students’ hand hygiene is a challenge.

“I’m really trying to work with schools on this, but a lot of times they don’t even have soap and paper towels in the bathrooms because they say kids abuse it,” Ms. Bruce said.

Health officials also acknowledge the difficulty inherent in any effort to keep hundreds or thousands of students’ hands clean. Even when schools are willing to try, Ms. Bruce is hard-pressed to provide them with easy approaches, she said.

She recommends, for example, that schools install sinks just inside the cafeteria doors for hand- washing. “It would be convenient, visible, and readily accessible,” she said, “but it’s not required by state statute, and it’s an added expense that most [schools] aren’t willing to consider.”

In Waukesha County, administrators of the 12,900-student district started by laying down the law for what Superintendent Schmidt described as an already cautious food-service staff.

A districtwide memo advised the workers to “wash their hands before handling food, including but not limited to the following times: after using the toilet; after coughing, sneezing, using a handkerchief or disposable tissue; after handling raw meats or unwashed produce; after handling animals; and/or after engaging in any activity that may contaminate the hands.”

Students were taught how and when to wash their hands. For at least six weeks after the outbreak of E. coli, parent volunteers monitored school restrooms to make sure children followed those directions.

“We had the cleanest hands in the county,” Mr. Schmidt said.

And now? “We’re keeping it up,” he said. “It’s difficult, but we have constant reminders.”

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP