School soap ban sickens

By Kathryn Powley

Parents blame gastro outbreaks on lack of soap and hand driers in school bathrooms

Stonefields School. Photo / Doug Sherring
Stonefields School. Photo / Doug Sherring

Children are becoming sick at one of the country's most modern new schools, parents say, because for three years the board banned soap and hand towels, fearing that they harmed the environment.

The roll at Stonefields School, in an expensive new East Auckland subdivision, has soared to 300 since it opened in 2011. The architecturally designed, decile-9 school is known for innovative education methods, and adherence to principles of environmental sustainability.

The school, which has Greenstar accreditation for environmentally friendly design, has a healthy attendance rate of 93.4 per cent, the board says, with no unusual illnesses.

But some parents say their children are suffering due to the school founders' green philosophy and have complained to the board about their children's repeated bouts of illness.

Stonefields has stocked only hand sanitiser in bathrooms since it opened in February 2011.

After an approach from the Herald on Sunday this month, board chairman Israel Vaeliki said the school would install hand driers and soap dispensers.

One mum, who asked not to be named, said she, her husband and their child had suffered gastro-intestinal illnesses this year. "The hand sanitiser's not effective."

The woman had raised the issue with the school but had been assured handwashing, with soap, was available in the children's learning hubs.

Another parent said her daughter and classmates had suffered several bouts of gastroenteritis, due to the lack of soap and hand driers. Instead, the children would wipe their wet and dirty hands on their clothes. But a third Stonefields parent, Camille Harvey, believed sanitiser was more effective as children tended to do a poor job with soap and water.

In response to emailed questions, Vaeliki confirmed a new block nearing completion would include soap and hand driers and existing bathrooms would be fitted with soap and hand driers. "There was not much discussion on the issue as everyone agreed hand driers were desirable," he said.

The original sanitiser solution was decided by the establishment board in consultation with the Ministry of Education before the school opened, Vaeliki said. "Having no paper towels was in line with the school's environmental sustainability philosophy. Recently, the school has received one complaint about the solution but otherwise there have been no issues for three years."

A ministry spokesman said schools were required to provide a cleaning agent and warm water so the potential spread of germs was kept to a minimum.

"It does not matter what kind of cleaning product is used."

But Auckland Regional Public Health Medical Officer of Health Dr Richard Hoskins said soap and running warm water was preferable to hand sanitiser.

The organisation's publicity material said hand sanitisers were useful to decontaminate hands if no handwashing facilities were available, but did not replace the need for thorough hand hygiene.

Six of one, half-dozen of the other

Getting children to wash their hands can be a real bugbear. The Slater household on Auckland's North Shore likes both soap and sanitiser.

Olivia Slater and her family use soap and water at home but sanitiser when they're out.  Photo / Doug Sherring
Olivia Slater and her family use soap and water at home but sanitiser when they're out. Photo / Doug Sherring

"We feel that sanitisers are no bad thing, and anything that encourages busy little kids to show any interest in hygiene is good," says Julia Slater, mother of Olivia, 9, Lauren, 7, and James, 5.

"However, I would prefer soap and water in schools."

Julia has worked hard to teach her kids to wash their hands.

"At home we use both soap and water, but use sanitiser when we are out and about."

- Herald on Sunday

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