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Reducing Classroom Cooties

by Dave Arnold

When school administrators asked what I thought about high school students and teachers in our district each getting an iPad as part of a technology grant program, I felt like shouting in glee from the highest mountain like everyone else. But I didn’t. Sure, these mobile tablets from Apple are wonderful teaching and learning tools. Cutting edge. And very cool.

My response, however, was more practical than cool: “I think we will see a noticeable reduction in absenteeism.”

When they asked me to explain my thinking, I told them that our students would likely cut back on sharing computer keyboards. This would mean a reduction in the exchange and multiplication of germs. Some teachers agreed with me while others were skeptical. Some said there couldn’t be that much germ proliferation from a keyboard to affect absenteeism in any significant way. This made me wonder.

I immediately found a computer, wiped the keyboard with a clean cloth, and did some research. What I found was sobering. Study after study confirmed that there are hundreds of times more bacteria on keyboards than on toilet seats.

Journalist Dan Childs of the ABC News Medical Unit posted a story in 2008 titled, “Your Keyboard: Dirtier Than a Toilet.”  Childs writes that this germ phenomenon was illustrated by tests at a typical office environment in the United Kingdom: “A consumer advocacy group commissioned the tests in which British microbiologist James Francis took a swab to 33 keyboards, a toilet seat and a toilet door handle at the publication's London office.”

Childs states that Francis then tested the swabs “to see what nasty germs he managed to pick up. He found that four of the keyboards tested were potential health hazards -- and one had levels of germs five times higher than that found on the toilet seat.”

These keyboard germs are microorganisms that carry the flu virus, the common cold virus, norovirus (which causes stomach illness) and infectious bacteria such as staph. Studies also confirm that germs increase exponentially with the number of users, especially at computer labs, offices, libraries, hospitals and other public places. When you touch your keyboard, germs are transferred to your hands and then to everything else you touch until the next wash. This wicked cycle continues from person to object, object to person, and on and on and on.

A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that long-term care facilities where staff used alcohol-based hand sanitizer were six times more likely to have outbreaks of norovirus than facilities where staffers lathered up with soap and water.

The NEA HIN and USDA have created The Stomach Bug Book, which is a booklet designed to inform and educate school personnel on norovirus. The book will help students and school personnel, such as custodians, food service workers, bus drivers and school nurses, understand the importance of hand washing and cleaning during a norovirus outbreak.

In my opinion, hand sanitizers do little to remove dirt and grime. While most hand sanitizers are alcohol-based and not recommended for small children, there are some forms that don’t contain alcohol. This is the type we use at Brownstown Elementary School in Illinois where I am head custodian. My colleagues and I work together to spray a cloth with a disinfectant and wipe down keyboards and computer mice every day.

In the debate between hand washing versus sanitizers, hand sanitizers are not as effective when hands are visibly dirty. Hands need to be clean for the sanitizer to be effective. Also, studies suggest that hand sanitizers are not effective in removing food allergens. In keeping with CDC’s recommendations, when soap and water is not available use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with t least 60 percent alcohol.

Every classroom at Brownstown has a hand sanitizer dispenser. Unfortunately, not every student will use the dispensers. The law says school employees and staff can only recommend that students use them: we can’t order it or discipline those who don’t. All things considered, for peak cleanliness nothing beats good old-fashioned hand washing with soap and water.

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, writes the online column, Dave’s View. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.

Dave's View has been discontinued following the retirement of its author, Dave Arnold. Even though new columns will not be posted, we encourage you to review past columns.