For most people, the sound of a toddler letting out a little “ah-ah-AH-choooo” is met with an “awww”; for child care directors, the sound is met with an “AAAAAAAAHH!”
Nothing can take down your entire center quicker than a sick child, parent or teacher walking through the door. All it takes is one child to wipe their runny nose and then touch a toy, who then passes it to another child who puts it in their mouth, who then holds a teacher’s hand to go put on their coat, who then signs a form and hands it to you, before everyone you’ve got a full-blown outbreak on your hands.
Cold & flu season generally occurs during the colder months of the year, between approximately October and May, making it less of a ‘season’ and something that needs to be top-of-mind for most of the year. While it is impossible to stop people from getting sick (as much as we may hope and dream), it is possible to mitigate the risk and prevent it from spreading.
While most centers have a sick policy of some sort, many are not doing everything they can to prevent the spread of illnesses in their facilities. As a director, it is up to you to make illness prevention a priority and equip your center with what it needs to keep everyone as healthy as possible.
In this guide, we’ll walk through how directors can prepare their child care centers to prevent the spread of illnesses during cold and flu season (and beyond).
Create a Detailed Child Care Sick Policy
The first step toward having an illness-free center is by having a thorough sick policy.
A sick policy will help make a child care director’s job easier by:
- Helping people identify when they are too sick to enter your facility.
- Set expectations for what to do when sick.
- Clarify when it is alright to return after an illness has passed.
- Explain what will happen if your sick policy is violated.
Sick policies aren’t just for kiddos, though. Your policy should apply to anyone who will be entering your child care facility, including:
- Admin staff
- Custodial staff
In general, the more detailed you are, the better. This will ensure that there is no room left for interpretation. It is not enough to simply say “stay home when sick;” instead, provide a long list of common illnesses, and what the criteria are for each one in order to be healthy enough to return to your center.
|Illness||Criteria for Return|
|Chicken pox||All sores have dried and crusted (approximately 6 days).|
|Fever above 100 degrees||Temperature returns to under 100 degrees without the use of fever-reducing medicines.|
|Influenza/Flu||All signs of fever are resolved for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medicines.|
Some sick policies will also require a note from a doctor for more serious illnesses, notably influenza/flu.
When sick, explain that parents need to notify you as soon as possible and to keep their child at home. You should also communicate that if a child begins to experience signs of illness then they will receive a phone call and need to pick them up within a certain timeframe (e.g. one hour). In the meantime, have a space where sick children can be isolated from their peers and kept comfortable until pickup.
If a child becomes sick while they are at your center and the child’s caretaker is unable to pick them up, make sure that emergency contacts are available for your teachers.
Enforce Your Sick Policy
A sick policy will only work if it is actually being followed. It can be uncomfortable being a stickler for the rules, but if you want your chances of an outbreak to be minimized, then you will unfortunately need to have some uncomfortable conversations along the way.
Your center’s sick policy should be communicated to parents as early as their first visit to your center. It is important that they are aware of all the steps to take when their child gets sick, which will happen at least once during their time with you!
As much as possible, do not make exemptions to the rules. For example, if you require a full 24 hours after signs of illness have gone away and it has only been 20 hours, stick to the full 24-hour requirement. The point is, if you don’t stick to your rules, why would you expect parents to?
If parents need someone to look after their child but they aren’t well enough to return to your center, perhaps you can provide them with resources about how to obtain last-minute care. For example, you could refer them to Care.com to find a last-minute babysitter to look after their child if they are unable to work from home or find an available relative.
Just like the children, staff should remain home when sick to avoid spreading illnesses to others. Ensure that employees feel comfortable taking a sick day and will not feel like they will get in trouble or let everyone down if they take one. Explain why it’s so important for them to stay home and never make them think that you are mad at them for calling in sick; in fact, thank them for doing the responsible thing and putting everyone else’s health first.
Have Enough Relief Staff Ready
It will be a lot easier to manage cold & flu season if you are prepared for when your staff will be out sick. Be proactive and have a substantial list of relief staff to call when an employee calls in sick (especially when it is last minute). This can be staff who currently have the day off or educators who are in your roster for just such an occasion. Either way, don’t get caught off guard without a backup option to come in and help out.
Train Staff on Best Practices
You’d be surprised how often illness spreads due to people simply not knowing the proper precautions to take to avoid the spread of germs. As a director, it is your responsibility to ensure that all of your staff is properly trained on best practices for avoiding the spread of illness.
Never assume that anything is a given. Train your staff on procedures to follow including:
- Proper handwashing technique (wet hands, lather and scrub with soap for 20 seconds, rinse, dry thoroughly with a paper towel, use paper towel to shut off tap and open door).
- Wash hands before eating, after eating, going to the bathroom, touching doorknobs, coughing, sneezing…pretty much all the time.
- Use hand sanitizer when water and soap is not an option.
- Cover mouth and nose with a tissue or arm when coughing or sneezing, and wash hands after.
- Make sure that teachers disinfect their classrooms on a regular basis to minimize the spread of germs.
- Stay home when sick.
Send Information to Parents
Just like with your staff, don’t assume that parents know everything about how to avoid catching and spreading illnesses. Provide a handout or send an email/newsletter with helpful information about cold & flu season, such as:
- Reminder to get a flu shot for parents and children older than 6 months.
- Closest locations to get the flu shot.
- Signs of illness to watch out for.
- Proper handwashing technique.
- Covering mouth with arm when coughing or sneezing.
- Keeping their children home when sick.
- Reminders about your sick policy.
Place Reminders Around Your Center
When it comes to preventing the spread of illness, there is no such thing as too much communication. In addition to whatever else you are doing, print out posters and place them around your center. These will serve as helpful reminders for important things like:
- Proper handwashing technique.
- Coughing and sneezing into your arm.
- Your sick policy.
Try to place this information in locations where it will be most relevant. For example, you may want to place hand-washing information above the sink and your sick policy on the front door to your center and/or each classroom.
Have Accessible Hand Wash & Sanitizer Stations
If you want your staff and children to follow proper handwashing techniques, you need to ensure that they have the resources available to do so. In an ideal world you could install new sinks anywhere that would be most convenient, but short of that, you can ensure that children are able to access the ones that you do have available with step stools.
It is also a good idea to put hand sanitizer in areas where sinks are not readily available, such as near the entrance to your building, hallways, or in areas of the classrooms that are furthest from the sink. You can also keep sanitizer near sinks in case teachers need to wash their hands but do not have a full 20 seconds available to properly wash them (which, let’s face it, can be most times in a preschool or daycare).
Regularly Clean & Disinfect
Every item in your center is a germ magnet, and so it is important to regularly clean and disinfect everything so that whatever is lingering around does not have the chance to spread. The frequency and technique required will vary depending on the children’s ages (e.g. daily cleaning for younger children’s toys who are teething) and item (e.g. putting hard plastic toys in the dishwasher on hot water setting).
Set clear expectations so that nothing gets overlooked. Clearly communicate who needs to clean what, when this needs to happen and how it should be done.
Some easy ways to do this consistently are:
- Wiping down surfaces at the end of the day with sanitizing wipes.
- Investing in air filtration systems for your classrooms.
- Give the toys a bath (you can even include the kids in the clean-up routine!).
If this ends up being too much extra work for your staff, it may be worth it to outsource these responsibilities to a cleaning company that specializes in child care centers. This will be an extra cost but may be well worth it to ensure the health of your staff and students.
Schedule a Flu Shot Clinic
Although you can’t make people get the flu shot, you can make it easier for them. Depending on how many staff you have, you might be able to arrange to have a flu shot clinic at your center. This would allow employees to quickly get their flu shot without needing to make extra arrangements to get it on their own time, as well as make them more likely to actually get the shot.
You are much less likely to get sick when you are taking great care of yourself, so make it a point to keep you and your staff as healthy as possible. The following will help keep you healthy and, as a result, less susceptible to illnesses:
- Maintain a healthy diet.
- Regularly exercise.
- Avoid stress.
- Get a proper night’s sleep.
- Stay hydrated.
- Quit smoking.
- Avoid excess alcohol or drugs.
Some of these can even be turned into fun activities for your staff. For example, team events like a healthy potluck, yoga, exercise club or monthly step challenge will provide you with an opportunity to bond while also promoting a healthy lifestyle.
The Rules Apply to You, Too!
As you enforce the rules on everyone else, don’t forget that you’re not above the law! If you are feeling sick then either work from home or take the day off to avoid being the one spreading illness at your center. “Don’t come too close, I’m not feeling well” isn’t going to cut it.
It is a good idea to also have a trusty staff member who is your next-in-command when you are sick. Ensure that they are well-trained to fill in for you when you are away so that you can take the time to focus on yourself to come back better than ever once you’re healthy again.
How do you maintain a healthy center during cold and flu season? Let us know in the comments!