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Illness-related absences have been shown to lead to negative educational and economic outcomes. Both hand washing and hand sanitizer interventions have been shown to be effective in reducing illness-related absences. However, while the importance of hand hygiene in schools is clear, the role of instruction in use is less obvious. The purpose of this study was to compare absenteeism rates among elementary students given access to hand hygiene facilities versus students given both access and short repetitive instruction in use, particularly during influenza season when illness-related absences are at a peak.
A hand hygiene intervention was implemented from October to May during the 2009/2010 academic year, including peak flu season, in two Chicago Public Elementary Schools among students grades pre-kindergarten to eighth grade (ages 4–14). Classrooms were systematically assigned to an intervention or control group by grade (cluster design). Hand hygiene facilities (sanitizer and soap) were made available to all students. Students in the intervention group also received short repetitive instruction in hand hygiene every 2 months. Only absences as a result of respiratory or gastrointestinal illness were used to establish illness-related absenteeism rates. Percent absent days were calculated and bivariate analyses were performed to compare percent absent days among students given access to hand hygiene facilities versus students given both access and instruction. Prior to the intervention, teachers’ perceptions of students’ hand hygiene were also evaluated. Teacher perceptions were analysed to describe attitudes and beliefs.
Data were collected and analysed for 773 students reporting 1,886 absences during the study period (1.73% of total school days). Both the percent total absent days and percent illness-related absent days were significantly lower in the group receiving short instruction during flu season (P=0.002, P<0.001, respectively). This difference peaked during the influenza season (when intervention began) and declined in the following months. Teachers (n=23) agreed that hand hygiene is not performed properly among students and reported time constraints as a barrier to frequent hand washing.
Adding hand hygiene instruction to existing hand hygiene practices improved attendance at public elementary schools during the flu season. Standardized and brief repetitive instruction in hand hygiene holds potential to significantly reduce absenteeism.