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Parents in school worried about time lost in classroom due to handwashing?

March 26, 2011

Parents of students in Edgewater Elementary School in the Volusia County School District, FL are up in arms about a situation that may cost their children days of instructional time.  Right worry…but the cause of the worry is interesting. It seems there is a child at this school that has a very severe case of peanut allergy, and the school is requiring all students to wash their hands twice a day as well as rinse their mouths out after lunch. Among concerns by parents of this school is that the hygiene practice is taking 10 minutes a day out of the children’s educational time.  Parents complain that this adds up to their children losing 3 full days of instructional time each year. And, they are mad! Their children’s education is at risk.

Now, I am NOT going to debate the merits and appropriateness of how the school is dealing with a peanut allergy.  It seems the young girls’ situation is life-threatening and reasonable measures should be taken to protect her. What cracks me up is this:

  1. Children SHOULD be washing their hands at least twice a day while they are in school. Actually, they should be doing it each and every time they leave the restroom, before meals, etc.  These are elementary school kids, folks — they attract dirt and germs like velcro! Hand-washing should be encouraged, not picketed about.
  2. But, more importantly, we really need to look at the overall “time lost in the classroom issue.” These parents are picketing, for crying out loud, over the potential loss of THREE days.  I don’t see a SINGLE parent walking the lines wondering why schools continue to allow a “routine” waste of 30 days or more of their children’s instructional time each and every year.

I’ve written and spoken about this extensively already. Just yesterday, I completed the last of a number of presentations to business groups, educators and government officials in Nassau, The Bahamas, about the problems plaguing our school systems. One of the things I shared with them is the tremendous hemorrhaging of time (and corresponding cost and academic achievement) of time lost in the classroom due to discipline and behavior issues.

When repeated studies show that teachers lose, on average, somewhere between 25-50% or more of what should be teaching time managing disruptive and unruly students, we are talking about a loss of 45-90 DAYS out of the typical school calendar year.  Do I see a SINGLE parent out there (well, other than me) raising holy heck about the fact that my child’s education is impacted by this issue? And, it happens, not just in one school in Volusia County, Florida, but in virtually every school, in every district, in every state in our nation!! Where is the outrage about this?

Last Spring, at the encouragement of Liv Finne (Washington Policy Center), I produced a research paper that shows the impact to Washington State, in terms of dollars, days and related results, of this problem of unproductive classrooms.  While I have shared this with quite a few lawmakers, education experts, and other “interested parties,” I have yet to make this public.  But, what I found to be true in Washington State extends seamlessly to every state in the nation (and, as several people shared with me after the presentations in the Bahamas, they have many of these same issues, too!) It appears, though, that not too many people have done this math.  And, I’m surprised. It HAS to be a serious consideration, both when we consider how our money is being spent (or wasted) and what is impacting student achievement (never mind all the other ancillary effects like absenteeism, teacher attrition, bullying, etc.)

It is a MAJOR problem that it seems only the few and the brave want to tackle.  At SocialSmarts, we have made a committment to donating our program to 1,000 schools across the country because we know schools want to have better outcomes but may not have the money to invest in the programs they need to get them there. We know — and research has proven — that social skills education results in, on average, an 11 percentile point improvement in academic test scores, in part because you improve the productivity of the classroom. If I can help your students see a 43% increase in time-on-task, that may return 30 full DAYS of productive learning time back to that classroom. 

Heck, if I can regain 30 days of instructional time in the classroom, 3 days of hand-washing isn’t going to seem as much of a tradeoff as well.  Not to mention, if there is a child in school who has a life-threatening illness, and you are a classmate who learns lessons of compassion, consideration and empathy for the victims’ plight, don’t you have the opportunity to share a valuable life-lesson?  That 3 days may be hugely valuable, assuming you position it right.

Yes, be upset about 3 days of lost classroom time. Be REALLY upset about 30 days or more of lost classroom time. Be even MORE upset about the lost learning opportunities we have in coupling both life lessons and respectful classrooms because, whether you realize it or not, they are really one and the same.

And, the time lost here is NOT peanuts.

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