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How many school districts have a board of education policy about restrooms?

Of the 13,500 school districts in the 2018-19 school year, I’d wager a symbolic dollar that only a small number have such a document.

Local education agencies typically have not addressed school restroom issues. That may be because of society’s reticence to engage in any toilet talk. The problems of restroom etiquette, especially in middle and high schools, barely get mentioned in health classes. Teachers often survey sixth graders about sex education or AIDs, yet they are unlikely to discuss restroom privacy, sight lines, or realistic hand washing habits.

Elementary schools may know about Taro Gomi’s writing and illustrations in Everyone Poops. But try to imagine if any secondary school media center has The Big Necessity by Rose George on its shelves. (Here’s the subtitle: “The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.”) Don’t bet on it.

Schools tend to deal with restroom concerns by reacting to an immediate problem or an irritant that may be one of many that arise each day in a busy building with 1,000 or so teens or pre-teens. The usual response is a Band-aid approach—or more on point, a garbage bag on a leaking urinal.

In a discussion of healthful schools, a safe, clean learning environment, macro themes are seen too often from a view of 30,000 feet and rarely studied down in the weeds.

And the fact is that since 2004, each school district has had an opportunity to design, carry out, and improve policies that specifically address school restrooms.

That’s when Congress enacted legislation that required all local education agencies participating in the Richard Russell National School Lunch program to adopt a local school wellness policy. Every school district could have decided to include wording about school restrooms in its policy, but few did.

Beginning in 2006-07, these school district policies were to include goals dealing with nutrition education, physical education, and other school-based activities (emphasis added). The federal law (Public Law 108-265) went on the books, but many districts hardly noticed it or just catalogued the requirement as an unfunded mandate.

Congress reauthorized the requirement for a local school wellness policy as a part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

This time the statute received a bit more attention. However, individual school districts often adopted wording prepared by national advocacy organizations, state school boards associations or private consultancy groups. School districts had an opportunity to establish their own sanitation policies, but the pervasive sentiment was “Let’s not reinvent the wheel.”

Districts could have tailored a district’s local school wellness policy into practices at each individual school and bypassed a “one-size-fits-all” approach. But instead, many districts produced policies too long—the kitchen sink approach—or too legalistic—adopting the statute’s language as local policy without modification or realistic examination of local practical issues.

Local school wellness policies also required “other school-based activities that promote student wellness.” Some school districts began a transition from water fountains with dribbling spurts of water to newly installed water bottle fill stations. Hydration upgrades, improved indoor air quality, and more inclusion for all categories of children have gained media and political attention as activities that promoted student wellness.

However, did public school districts address restroom “sight lines” to enhance privacy, install both air dryers and hand towels, or post appropriate signage in secondary school restrooms? Not many. Most packed a litany of words and phrases into their policies, yet they skimped on making changes in individual schools.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services published in the Federal Register a final rule for the required local school wellness policy. The policy had teeth in it, and districts had to revise policies by June 2017. A triennial review of the policies was scheduled to begin in 2020.

And then in March 2020, Covid-19 closed schools down. Feeding children at drop-off locations and virtual schooling became all-consuming. The world of local school wellness policy became shuttered in place.

A year after the pandemic struck, schools in many places now are in some semblance of a “new normal,” yet they are hardly back to square one, which never occurs anyway following a disaster or cataclysmic change.

Maybe if schools reconvene in large numbers in late spring, or offer catch-up classes over the summer of 2021, some official will say, “What about our wellness policy”?

The evolving, sometimes conflicting or confusing CDC publications on reopening schools in early 2021 addressed disinfecting, but rarely the full range of restroom issues.

Districts could search past minutes of required meetings under the wellness policy and add clear, concise wording about “other school-based activities:”

            Schools shall provide safe, clean, and hygienic restrooms, to foster personal responsibility.

Imagine if the 30% to 40% of adolescents who avoid use of middle and high school restrooms returned to campuses and found restrooms to be places of privacy, fully stocked with provisions, and bastions of wellness.

School boards and district administrators should consider adopting an “EEE” wellness policy that encourages all school children to eat better, exercise more, and eliminate properly.

SIDEBAR: Restrooms after Covid

A year of coping with the Covid-19 virus has made millions of people more cognizant of the enhanced cleaning and decontamination practices that help prevent the spread of Covid and other contagious diseases.

One silver lining of the pandemic may be that students and staff in schools have gained greater understanding of the health threats posed by poorly maintained restrooms, and the benefits of keeping them clean and disinfected.

Schools would be wise to continue to carry out enhanced, Covid-inspired cleaning tasks, especially in germ-prone spaces such as restrooms, even after the pandemic subsides and students return to a regular classroom schedule.

Project Clean and the American Restroom Association have put together a list of 10 steps that middle and high schools should take to get their restrooms ready for a building full of students:

•Soap: It should be available in every restroom all day, and custodians should restock it regularly.

•Water: Every sink should flow with water—preferably warm water.

•Paper towels: Every restroom should have hand-drying paper towels, automatic dryers or both.

•Reminders: Install signs made by students (with help from art teachers or others) to remind users about flushing, washing hands and stashing trash.

•Checklist: An administrator should walk the building every day and check all restrooms to make sure that they are supplied, clean and functioning.

•Student leaders: Student government and class officers should work with fellow students to foster more respect for custodians and restrooms.

•Make it fun: Instead of singing “Happy Birthday” while washing hands, schools could have contests, e.g., a competition to compose a 20-second handwashing song.

•Parent leaders: The PTA or similar organization could establish a “school restrooms” committee to address school sanitation issues.

•Vending revenue: Redirect a percentage of vending machine revenue so the school can acquire sanitizer stations to be positioned throughout a school campus.

•Orientation: Incoming middle school students should attend a session that informs them about the expectations concerning the proper use of restrooms at school.

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