Sitting in front of a class of intent second graders at Arrowhead Elementary School in Collegeville, Pa., Grace and Hale Soloff had an important lesson to teach.
They were not imparting a new math technique or a writing wrinkle. Hand-washing was the topic of the hour.
The two guest teachers, teenagers on a mission, took turns reading a picture book, “Germs Are Not for Sharing.” They talked about using tissues to “blow, wipe and toss,” and demonstrated how to wash palms, backs of hands, fingernails and up to the wrists, for about as long as it takes to sing the “ABC” song.
Then they took the children into the school bathrooms for a practice run. “Washing your hands is the best way to keep from getting sick, and nobody wants to get sick,” Hale Soloff said.
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With the swine-flu pandemic spreading through the country’s schools, hand-washing and other preventive measures are becoming as much a part of the daily student routine as one-two-threes and ABCs.
More than 70 percent of those catching the flu in Pennsylvania are between 5 and 24, Stephen Ostroff, the state’s acting physician general, said recently, with most of them “at the lower end” of that age range.
Because the illness can be transmitted from virus-covered hands and from the surfaces children touch, teaching “hand-washing is a very effective way to reduce the spread,” Ostroff said. “My congratulations to them. I think what they’re doing is great. We consider them our heroes; it’s something that needs to be constantly reinforced.”
The Soloffs have unique qualifications for the task. Grace Soloff, 18, a freshman biochemistry major at Ursinus College, is studying to be a doctor. Her brother, 15, a sophomore at Methacton High School, won a first-place science award in seventh grade for his research on the effectiveness of washing hands with soap and water compared with using hand sanitizer or no cleaner at all. She did a similar project in high school, comparing the effectiveness of various soaps.
They devised their 20-minute lesson using information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reinforcing a simple message: Washing hands helps prevent illness.
Earlier this year, the duo made a presentation to the Arrowhead faculty about the importance of teaching hand-washing, and in September they talked to a first-grade class. “We really think it’s important to spread this message,” Hale Soloff said after yesterday’s lesson. “About 164 million school days are lost each year due to illness.”
Grace Soloff said, “I’m studying to be a doctor, but I believe that it’s much better to prevent people from getting sick than to help them get better.”
Arrowhead second-grade teacher Anita Morgan credited the Soloffs, who attended the school as children, with persuading her grade team to shift a series of lessons called “What Makes Me Sick” to the beginning of the school year instead of teaching it later. The lessons, she said, included spraying fake “glo germs” on students’ hands, then using a black light to see how much stayed on before and after washing and how much was transferred to other students when they shook hands.
While teaching hygiene has been a part of her classes for years, she said, this year, “I’m putting a much bigger focus on it; for the children, it has become part of the routine now.”
Turning to the Soloffs, Morgan said: “You helped us focus on the issue; your presence made an impact.”
The students liked what they heard. After the lesson, second grader Emily McKernan said she had learned to “wash my fingernails and between my fingers.” Classmate Keith Coless said he “already knew” that and other tips, but “they reminded me” about them. “It was fun.”