As a parent group leader, you want students—and everyone else who spends time at the school—to be as healthy as possible. While it is impossible to completely eliminate the cold and flu germs that wreak havoc on your school and its families, parent groups can play an important role in keeping the school community as healthy as possible and in informing parents about how viruses like the new coronavirus are impacting schools.

It's natural for parents to worry about emerging illnesses like that caused by the new coronavirus. If parents are asking you about the school's response, start by talking to the principal about the school district's plans. The Centers for Disease Control's guidance for schools is different for communities where COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, has been confirmed and those where it hasn't. Some schools in communities with identified cases of COVID-19 have closed to limit coronavirus transmission. In some cities, school parent groups have responded by donating food to families in need and trying ways for the school community to stay connected online. If the coronavirus hasn't been confirmed in your area, the school should focus on virus protection by disinfecting surfaces and promoting proper handwashing, as well as planning how to respond if a case is confirmed in your community.

PTOs can help by sharing accurate information and resources where parents can find updates as the situation changes. Good sources of information on the coronavirus include the American Association of School Administrators Resources on Coronavirus page and the Centers for Disease Control's Coronavirus Disease 2019 site. For Spanish and Chinese translations of CDC materials, check out Colorin Colorado's multilingual resources on the coronavirus.

The next step is to ask the school nurse how your PTO can help. Your group might be able to round up donations of hand sanitizer or facial tissues, disinfect classrooms, or share health information in your email newsletter. “School nurses focus on prevention and wellness,” says Sandi Delack, a nurse at a Rhode Island middle school and president of the National Association of School Nurses. “We love to partner with parents.”

If your school doesn't have a nurse, a parent organization can be a powerful advocate, Delack says. “Go to the policymakers and make a case that children’s health is important.”

Raise money and build school spirit with the ultimate fun run planning guide

Here are some ways school parent groups can have a healthy impact:

  • Work with room parents to help teachers stock classrooms with tissues, liquid soap, hand sanitizer, germ-killing spray, and paper towels. With an ample supply of such products, teachers won’t have to restrict usage.

  • Staff classrooms with parent volunteers to wipe down hard surfaces with a solution of bleach and water while kids are on the playground or in the cafeteria.

  • Ask parents to take home soft items in the classroom, such as pillows, blankets, and stuffed animals, for cleaning and sanitizing. Consider keeping these items outside the classroom until flu season is over.

  • Assign volunteers to disinfect surfaces outside the classroom, such as in hallways, restrooms, and the media center. Don’t forget the playground.

  • Add a thorough disinfecting regime to the task list if you’re planning a workday for landscaping or painting.

  • Hang colorful, eye-catching posters reminding everyone of proper hand-washing practices and other healthy habits, such as not sharing beverages. At Delack’s middle school, she has to remind girls not to share lip gloss! Sponsor a contest among students to see who can come up with the most creative poster.

  • Include tips about preventing cold and flu in your PTO newsletter and other communications.

  • Promote critical aspects of a healthy lifestyle, such as eating fruits and vegetables and getting a good night’s sleep. Healthy kids have strong immune systems.

  • Sponsor an assembly about healthy habits. Make it fun and age-appropriate; for example, include music and a puppet show for younger kids.

  • Recruit older students to put on a play about flu prevention for the younger kids.

  • Have alcohol-based hand sanitizer available at parent group functions.

  • Work with your principal to take pressure off parents to send children to school even when they are sick. Downplay perfect attendance and promote the idea of keeping sick kids home so their bodies can heal. “Perfect attendance is the bane of our existence,” Delack says. “If they’re sick, they need to stay home.”

  • Model good practices at all times, and encourage all PTO members to do the same.

Students will get sick. So will teachers. The goal is to minimize exposure as much as possible. A school parent group has the collective power to educate, involve, and motivate a school community to use every possible strategy for a milder cold and flu season.

Originally posted in 2010 and updated regularly