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WASH in Schools: Problems and Opportunities

Author:  Ben Seidl, Program Director

Schools are cosmopolitan meccas for all types of bacteria and viruses.  Whether in the United States, Haiti, Malaysia, or Angola, schools are breeding grounds for a dangerous mix of recurring gastrointestinal illness.  The sheer amount of children with underdeveloped immune systems situated in a small space, sharing food, materials, and sanitation facilities makes for a public health perfect storm. Recent statistics from UNICEF demonstrate that “more than 40 percent of diarrhea cases in schoolchildren result from transmission in schools rather than homes.”  Accordingly, the impact of diarrhea and gastrointestinal illness on education is direct. Students that lack access to adequate sanitation facilities, soap for hand washing, and potable water to drink in schools are exposed and vulnerable to fall sick with parasite infection and diarrheal disease.  These students then miss critical school days, which is exacerbated within education systems that are already underserved and underperforming.  UNICEF also presents a solution to the public health perfect storm in schools that it recognizes: “Hand washing practiced in facilities such as day-care centers and primary schools reduces cases of diarrhea by 30 percent.”  WASH in Schools, otherwise known as water, hygiene, and sanitation services, are therefore an important service to building a healthy and productive student body.

World Water Relief focuses on implementing WASH in Schools projects in Haiti and the Dominican Republic to create a hygienic, healthy, and safe learning environment. Our projects feature safe water, hand washing, and improved sanitation that represent an immense opportunity to reduce the diarrheal illness that millions of students battle every day.  To ensure long-term impact and sustainability of our projects, we especially focus on ensuring that kids bring their lessons beyond the typical classroom.  From engaging students to sing songs about water in the classroom, to teaching parents to practice hygiene at home, to teachers being a role model and washing their hands with students side-by-side, we believe that long-lasting impact occurs when students, teachers, and their parents are all involved.  Instead of seeing the school environment as a dangerous breeding grounds for bacteria, we must embrace the opportunity that this platform provides by improving appropriate WASH infrastructure to vastly improve the overall health and productivity of students around the world.