ANNAPOLIS – In little hands, soap can be transformed.
Two bars of soap covered with paper towels become skates. Soap on a tile floor makes a Slip’n Slide. Soap flushed down the toilet creates the kind of havoc that makes middle school memorable.
For schools, keeping soap stocked can be difficult. But for kids – some of whom play in dirt, sneeze on each other and pick up frogs – access to soap is a health imperative, said state lawmakers who support a bill to require soap in school bathrooms.
“It sounds maybe lighthearted, but really is a serious health issue,” said Delegate Anne Healey, D-Prince George’s, who introduced the bill last week with 10 other delegates.
Hand washing helps prevent the spread of diseases such as salmonella, E. coli, hepatitis A, pink eye and streptococcus. It could prevent half of the 2.4 million infections acquired annually in U.S. hospitals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
But hand washing can be frustrating to accommodate in some schools.
“That’s kind of touchy,” said Judy Austin, principal at Greenbelt Middle School. “We have to really man our soap.”
As she spoke, teachers downstairs cleared a hallway scuffle that sent binders, paper and profanities flying. For her 974 students, the bathroom is one more place to play, Austin said.
The school rations soap and paper towels to prevent pranks. Most teachers have sinks and soap in their classrooms where hand washing can be supervised, Austin said, and many of the girls carry hand sanitizer in their purses.
“The guys,” she added, “don’t care whether they wash their hands or not.”
State law does not require soap, paper towels, toilet paper or any other school bathroom supplies, Healey said. The state health department inspects schools, and it would be responsible for the soap mandate if it passes, she said.
And it should pass, said high school senior Dania Edwards.
“My school rarely has soap in it,” said Edwards, who attends Lake Clifton High School in Baltimore. “Sometimes, you can squeeze the last soap out, and the next time you see soap it’ll be next month.”
Teresa Butler, 17, carries hand sanitizer at all times at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, but she has no complaints.
“Our bathrooms are not triflin’,” she said.
For the unhip, that means that the bathrooms have soap.
A group of high school students touring the state capital last week said they cared very much about soap. The group went beyond supporting the bill. They offered suggestions.
“I don’t think we should have bar soap,” said Shandrea Hawkins, 15, a sophomore at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore. “Everybody’s hands been on it.”
Her classmate nodded. “Hair be clinging on it,” said Stacey Janeira Reed, 16.
“They should have a mild soap, like Dove,” Hawkins said.
“Octagon,” Reed said. “That’s a good soap. Good for your skin.”
Soap is no trifling issue for Earl Simon, a plumber for the Prince George’s County school maintenance department. He spends half his time repairing the work of vandals, and he knows how long it takes a bar of soap to dissolve in a toilet.
He said most schools fill dispensers with a peppermint-scented liquid. The bill does not specify what kind of soap must be used, but Simon has one request: “Just so it’s not a bar soap.”