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Hand-washing could become requirement in Chicago schools

Arthur Bresnahan, rear, and other first-grade students wash their hands before lunch at the South Loop Elementary School, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007, in Chicago. Legislation sponsored by Rep. Mary Flowers, D-Chicago, was passed Thursday at the Illinois Capitol that will require Chicago schools to make students wash their hands with antiseptic soap before eating. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Wire Services SPRINGFIELD (AP) - Rep. Mary Flowers wants to clean up Chicago schools - two germy, dirty hands at a time. Fed up with what she sees as a health hazard for thousands of children, Flowers has introduced legislation that would require Chicago schools to make students wash their hands with antiseptic soap before eating. "This is all about a way of life for our children," Flowers, D-Chicago, said in a recent interview. "It's a public safety issue that needs to be addressed." But school officials and teachers say the measure seems to reflect misplaced priorities at the state capitol. They say teachers are already doing a good job of keeping kids' hands clean for breakfast and lunch. And one Chicago parent said promoting cleanliness among students would be a good idea, but questioned whether it deserves the attention of state lawmakers. "I think they should be focused on the issues," said Mona Van Kenegan, a dentist for a public health clinic at a Chicago high school who has a 7-year-old in a Chicago school. The measure passed the Illinois House 100-14 Thursday without any debate. It now goes to the Senate. School absences because of sick kids are common, especially in the cold winter months. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates nearly 22 million school days are lost nationwide just to the common cold, with some viruses and bacteria able to live for two hours or longer on cafeteria tables, doorknobs and desks. Three schools in North Carolina closed for several days last week after an outbreak of flu-like symptoms decimated attendance. The Illinois Public Health Department doesn't track similar closures here, however, and Flowers offers no specifics about the scope of the problem she's trying to address in Chicago schools. Illinois could be heading into new territory if it approves Flowers' bill. Several federal agencies and advocacy groups say they know of no other state that requires school hand washing by law. Handwashing For Life, a Libertyville, Ill.-based advocacy group that focuses on restaurant kitchens, says similar proposals have popped up in states such as California and Ohio but nothing was implemented. "I think there's certainly an unmet need, but nobody seems to know how to go about it," said Jim Mann, executive director for the group, which was not familiar with Flowers' proposal. The legislation, besides requiring the hand washing, would make school officials provide facilities and supervision to implement a hand-washing program that meets "nationally accepted standards." Flowers says the absences can drop dramatically if schools will stress basic hygiene. She says she's simply building off an existing state law that requires school officials to include the benefits of hand washing in a "comprehensive health education program." Flowers, who has a daughter attending a Chicago high school, says she hopes the measure will also force officials to fix problems she's seen firsthand or heard about, such as bathrooms without hot water or clean surfaces. She acknowledges there's no punishment for schools that don't comply but says it shouldn't come to that, anyway. "It's a way of life as far as your hygiene is concerned," Flowers said. "It is an existing mandate that was not being implemented in our schools. As a result, our children were being made sick." One skeptical lawmaker changed his mind after debating the issue in committee. Rep. Jerry Mitchell, R-Sterling, originally thought it was frivolous because he says many school districts already have policies on hand washing. But after hearing about how much of a problem it was in Chicago, he decided to co-sponsor the measure. Flowers says her legislation applies only to Chicago schools because those are the ones she's familiar with, but she's willing to consider extending it to downstate schools. Mitchell isn't convinced that's necessary. Chicago school officials question how much it would cost to implement the bill's requirements, although they promise to resolve complaints about untidy conditions as they pop up. The Chicago Region PTA also expressed concern about implementing Flowers' proposal. "It's something that we're going to have to discuss," said President Betty Durbin. Meanwhile, the Chicago Teachers Union applauded Flowers' interest in keeping schools germ-free but said lawmakers should focus on weightier issues, such as faulty plumbing and other poor building conditions. "It's going to be difficult to enforce," said Rosemary Genova, the union's publicist. "We have bigger issues to deal with." --- The bill is HB382. On the Net: -General Assembly: www.ilga.gov -Handwashing for Life: www.handwashingforlife.com -School Network for Absenteeism Prevention: www.itsasnap.org --- Associated Press Writer Megan Reichgott contributed to this report. © Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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