Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Learning Has Begun

I watched a woman yesterday wiping down her shopping cart with one of those anti-bacterial wipes that grocery stores now provide in dispensers by their cart corrals. She didn't just wipe the push bar but the entire inside of her cart, top to bottom. It seemed a bit obsessive, but then again, the preschool's been hit with it's annual September-October wave of colds (with some sort of stomach bug thrown in). First it was the kids in our 5's class, now it's the 3-5's, and I'm sure that just means the Pre-3's are the next.

I take a kind of arrogant pride in my own immune system. I still occasionally get a runny nose or a scratchy throat or a cough, but for the most part I appear to have either become immune (knock on wood) to most of the routine stuff that passes through our school or else I serve as a kind of carrier who doesn't ever get the full-on symptoms, but can pass the crud on nevertheless.

Several years ago, a Woodland Park family made a generous donation to our Pre-3 class and worked for an employer with a matching funds program. In filling out the paperwork they were asked to provide our "mission statement." This is an animal we've never found need to own. Still, they needed to fill in that line so I answered, only half jokingly, "To expose young children to as many childhood illnesses as possible before sending them off to kindergarten."

This is how I feel about my own immune system, which I augment daily with 5-6 cups of fruit and 5-6 cups of veggies.

I don't want to leave the impression that we’re casual about illness. The children and adults of Woodland Park have a number of hand washing hurdles to overcome every day, including upon arrival and anytime we're around food, toilets, or snotty hands. We spend time at the beginning of the year making sure the children know how to properly wash up and we're forever sending or escorting (depending on their age) kids to the bathroom to use soap and running water. The adults are expected to wash their hands too, although we accept the hand sanitizer version, and have several bottles of the stuff around the room for their use. We do our best to follow hand washing protocol, but that has never stopped me from feeling like it was a kind of kabuki performance designed to pay homage to the "science" of disease transmission.

If you've spent any time at all around young children, you know that any hand washing designed to prevent the spread of illness is only valid until that child next touches her or his nose or mouth, which according to the FDA is on average once every three minutes, "and both adults and children come in contact with as many as 30 different objects every minute." I'll bet that number is higher in a preschool classroom like ours with a play-based, hands-on curriculum. (I also wonder how often adults touch their nose or mouth -- I'll bet that number isn't too much higher than every 3 minutes.) Still we do it, not so much because it's effective, but because it's a habit, like many of the things taught in preschool, that if learned young, will help prevent the spread disease in the future.

And I would, of course, never intentionally expose a child to anything (the whole "chickenpox party" thing of my youth appalls me), but I’m also a realist. This is a preschool, after all, a notorious hot bed for sniffles, coughs, and colds. We’ve hosted rounds of chickenpox, Fifth’s, pink eye, hand-foot-and-mouth, strep, and any number of other illnesses of the standard childhood variety over the years. Two-year-olds have brand new immune systems that still need to learn to fight off disease on their own, and like with everything else they need to learn, the only way to do that is through experience. I’ve come to think of illness as part of the curriculum.

Looking back, it feels like I was sick for nine straight months during my first year teaching. I hung on because my colleagues kept telling me that after 4-years my immune system would be so strong that I’d never get sick again. While that hasn’t proven to be entirely true, when I do get sick the symptoms seem milder and I get over it much more quickly than in the old days.

It’s not unheard of for a 2-year-old to miss nearly half her school days due to illness. That said, it’s quite rare for one of our 4-year-olds to miss school: a couple years ago our Pre-K class only had one day missed due to sickness. That’s not one day per child; that’s one day combined, and I have the attendance records to prove it. Talk about kindergarten readiness!

Yesterday, a lot of our 3-5's students called in sick and I noticed thin, clear mucus on the upper lips of others. At one point a parent showed me two empty tissue boxes and asked where to find new ones.

Yes, grasshoppers, we will wash our hands and cough into our elbows, but like it or not the learning has begun.

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