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.
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.
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.”