Soap, Schools and Swine Flu

08/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's happening, and schools are not ready for it.

Today, over seventy U.S. cadets at an air force academy in Colorado were confirmed to have swine flu. Last Thursday, Barack Obama interrupted his trip to Italy to warn America about the lingering H1N1 pandemic, and to brace for the fall. What has ensued are numerous discussions of preparatory measures including vaccines and money delivered to states and hospitals to prepare for the influx of people.

But schools--a hotbed for swine flu--are grappling for a more basic necessity than vaccines: hand soap.

Let me tell you a scary story.

At the height of the recent "swine flu" pandemic, I was teaching at Franklin K. Lane high school on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Every week I would go to this school, and as the televisions blared news of swine flu school closures in the area, I have to say that I hesitated to attend.

After standing in the crowded subway J train and holding onto the germ infested poles, I was eager to get to the school to wash my hands. I tried not to touch my face or wipe my nose until I arrived.

Finally, I got there, soap. Not even a dispenser. Enraged, I walked out into the hall. There, standing in perfect contrast, was a laminated poster explaining each step of how to properly wash your hands, with smiling bubbles and all. How ironic.

Meanwhile, 3 floors above me, kids were walking around with surgical masks on their faces. I came into class delivering my "soap box" rant about soap, and one of the kids gave me some hand sanitizer to ease my mind.

"I never use the bathrooms here," one of the kids explained in a strong accent. "I just hold it." Another girl told me that people would actually steal the soap, and that was why the school stopped providing it.

What a dismal situation we will be in come fall, if neglect is the tactic schools take to avoid theft or vandalism. But an even worse thought: what if there really is no soap...and the schools just can't afford it?

I never saw any hand soap in that bathroom for the entire rest of the year. Who knows how many more schools across the country face the same problem. Many other teachers who I spoke to that work in low income or Title 1 schools in New York experienced a similar lack of soap. Sometimes it was only missing for kids, but the teacher's bathrooms were stocked. Sometimes both were absent or unfilled.

According to the U.S. Department of Education website, hand washing is the primary defense that a school can use for the prevention of spreading the flu and other diseases, other than vaccines. The Center for Disease Control has a kid friendly version of how to defend yourself against germs, "The Buzz on Scuzz", and the first answer after "When should you wash your hands?" is "When you go to the bathroom." Well, hard to do without any soap.

In the DOE's May 2009 pamphlet on swine flu, they state that "schools should always maintain adequate stock of personal hygiene products, including soap." Not any fancy anti-bacterial soap, just plain hand soap.

This makes one wonder who is responsible at the schools. Is there a closet full of soap that janitors are just neglecting to put into the bathrooms? If that is the case, the schools need monitors to ensure that they are refilled daily, especially come fall.

If it's a matter of kids' shenanigans in bathrooms, they need to be seriously educated about the repercussions of their "soap" vandalism. While there are some resources for schools to use for bathroom maintenance, we may just need to throw our dirty hands up in the air and resort to hand sanitizers and avoid the bathrooms all together.

If it's a matter of budget, that is more complicated--in a time of financial crisis and budget cuts, do these schools even have the resources to make sure that there is proper supply of any of these products in their schools? Will that come at the expense of any programming? We don't want schools to have to make that decision.

This affects every single one of us, not just teachers and students. Approximately 1/5 of the U.S. population attends or works in schools. New York City has the largest public school system in the country, and most of the people that work in schools ride the subways. So it's in all of interests to make sure that this problem is dealt with over the summer, and that kids come back to school not only with vaccine needles in the ready, but with soap in the dispensers.