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Poor Hygiene in Schools: How It's Affecting Education, and How It's Addressed in our Community

Hygiene in schools
Hygiene supplies have their own section in the nurse's closet in the West Plains Elementary School. (photo: Jennifer Davidson, KSMU)

[Sound:  kids in school hallway]

This morning, we’re in the halls of the West Plains Elementary School, where kids are fidgety as they count down the days until the holiday break.

It’s well known that a lack of food or health care can affect a child’s education.  But another critical need is proper hygiene.

“My teacher says I should always wash my body every night,” says one nine-year-old girl here.  Her parents and school agreed we could talk to her as long as we withheld her name. She’s bright eyed, spunky, and polite.

“And you should brush your teeth right after dinner and stuff. And you should always wash your hands after you’re done going to the bathroom, and when you’re helping your mom do stuff, and once you’re done eating, and before eating,” she says.

Davidson:  “That’s a lot to remember! So, how well do you think you try to do that, when you’re at home, let’s say?”

Child: “Well, I really can’t because my dog.  I’m, like, really sensitive, and my mom doesn’t have that much room in her house. We live in a little gray, whitish house.”

Davidson:  “Explain to me what you mean about your dog. Why can’t you brush your teeth because of that?  Because he’s in the bathroom?”

Child:  “It’s a ‘she.’   Most of my friends brush their teeth, but I can’t really brush my teeth that much because of my dog.  She goes to the bathroom in there and stuff.  So, I’m, like, really sensitive.  Yeah, we usually don’t take her out, because she stinks and stuff.  I’m not trying to be rude, but it does.  But I also have a kitchen sink. I could always use that.”  

“We see kids that don’t have the facilities to bathe,” says Melissa Girdley, a full-time nurse at West Plains Elementary School. She knows this child’s story well.

“She had made mention that she hasn’t been able to brush her teeth in the mornings and at night like she’s supposed to, and kids had been saying things about her bad breath.  And she had said something to her teacher about how kids were picking on her.  So they sent her down to us, and we just talked to her about it, and gave her a little thing of mouthwash and a toothbrush and toothpaste,” Girdley said.

This little girl’s story is hardly unique;  it’s echoed throughout the Ozarks, in both rural school districts and in the Springfield area.

And here’s the point:  kids who have poor hygiene don’t perform as well at school.  One reason is because they’re made fun of.

“I’ve had children tell me that they don’t have running water,” says Ruth Schaumburg, who has been a teacher in West Plains for over two decades. 

“Children are very honest.  Children can also not be the best of friends sometimes—and they will single out children who do not have new clothes, or new shoes, or who are dirty. That, of course, hurts their feelings, and affects their ability to really concentrate on any kind of learning,” Schaumburg said.

Children with poor hygiene become social outcasts, which affects their self-esteem, and their desire to even come to school.

Also, it affects attendance.  Sometimes, schools have to call a parent to come pick the child up because the situation has become severe.  So, that child is missing out on the latest math or reading lesson until Mom or Dad can come up with a clean change of clothes, or a working bathtub and a bar of soap.  Middle- and high-school girls who are menstruating might stay home for several days because they can’t afford feminine hygiene products.

These may sound like easy fixes, but they’re not if you simply don’t have the money.  

At several schools in the Springfield School District, 90 percent of students qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program—that’s an income-based food program that’s sometimes used as one indicator of poverty.

Here in West Plains, about 80 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunches. 

The school has developed a system for addressing the problem of poor hygiene.

Pam Becker is the school-family coordinator.  Her job is to link parents to resources in the community where they can find solutions to their problems—like medical needs, employment, housing, and food.

“Many of the families are food stamp recipients. And food stamps, as we all know—it doesn’t pay for laundry detergent, dishwashing soap. It doesn’t pay for toilet paper and other necessities that many of us take for granted,” Becker said.

When a teacher has a concern, he or she will often call it to Becker’s attention. Becker, then, picks up the phone.

“Now, I never know what I’m getting into when I make a call. And it can be embarrassing.  And we know that parents are doing the best that they can under the circumstances,” Becker said.

In West Plains, Becker says, the school is lucky to have a strong web of support:  agencies, churches and shelters step in all the time.  Often, the school sends hygiene products home with kids, or parents.

And, the school is very active in educating its students about good hygiene.  Still, it’s an uphill battle.

Low-income parents are forced to prioritize just like higher-income parents.  But, instead of "Do we go to the beach this summer, or just stay in Missouri?” it’s more like, “I have seventeen dollars to last me through the month—do I spend it on food, or laundry detergent?”

In Springfield, the issue of poor hygiene in schools is tackled through the Care to Learn Fund.  Its executive director is Morey Mechlin.

“We are providing combs, brushes, tissues, soap, shampoo, deodorant, and toothbrushes,” Mechlin said.

There are 10 Care to Learn chapters throughout southwest Missouri. Mechlin said since Care to Learn began addressing health, hunger and hygiene needs, it is already seeing results.

“In the population we serve, we’re seeing as much as a five percent increase in attendance, which just makes sense.  If you have the products you need, you can attend school,” Mechlin said.

Join us this afternoon at 4:30 as our Sense of Community series on “Children in Need” continues.  We’ll be looking at the untold story of Missouri’s domestic violence shelters:  the children who end up there.

I’m Jennifer Davidson.