A Message to Educators: Hygiene, Hand Washing, and Cultural Considerations Before, During, and After Health Crises


For a few weeks, I have grappled with writer’s block—which is rare—and I’ve been figuratively wringing my hands trying to find the spark to express my concerns regarding culture blind views of hygiene and sanitation in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic and other health issues. Updating course syllabi has been arduous. Should I focus on one of the gifted and talented syllabi, cultural diversity syllabus, or poverty syllabus? I straddle two fields in education: the almost all-White and high-income field of gifted and talented education versus cultural diversity with attention to race, ethnicity, discrimination, classism, and cultural competence. When switching from the gifted and talented syllabus to the diversity one, I felt so much relief; ideas are now overflowing. I must do my part to help educators understand culture in terms of hygiene and to purge themselves of prejudices and stereotypes – implicit and explicit – about Black and other students of color in their academic care.

When I teach and enlighten higher education students (undergraduate and graduate) and practicing educators (teachers, counselors, administrators, policy makers, and more)—the majority being White females in professional development workshops and at conferences—I always focus on culture in developmental domains – social, emotional, psychological, and academic. Health cannot be discounted, so my diversity and poverty syllabi are changing with more attention to this topic. I am obligated to do so as a Black person full of racial pride and a keen sense of equity and social-cultural justice. #BlackAndProud #CulturalPride

Like medical and mental health professionals, educators who are ignorant and incompetent relative to culture (especially those other than their own) can and have been harmful by contributing to school-based racialized trauma. ‘Do no harm’ must not be tossed aside like old news and discarded like trash when teaching, counseling, and delivering other health services. Doing so is a disgrace to the education profession and an affront to Black and other culturally different students, families, and communities.

Dr. Donna Y. Ford

I offer several cultural considerations for educators:

Hygiene across cultures

  • Washing hands – beliefs, resources, and techniques – need to be studied in order to not demonize students from different cultures. No cultural group seeks to spread diseases, yet their beliefs and behaviors may be misunderstood and demonized as doing so when educators are ill-informed and culturally incompetent.
  • Alcohol-based cleansers are viewed differently across cultures, sometimes for religious reasons. This means that schools must have options available to be culturally responsive rather than culturally assaultive. Students will utilize familiar options — those practiced in their home and community.
  • Avoid chastising and humiliating students for following cultural norms (e.g., beliefs, behaviors, customs and traditions) based on child-rearing practices. Instead, ask families for recommendations and supplies in order to be supportive and viewed as an ally.

Health views and practices across cultures

  • Religion impacts beliefs and behaviors about such realities as the prolonging of life. For instance, ‘God’s will’ is a prevalent belief among many Blacks; of course, other higher beings are worshipped. Therefore, some children may resist products based on their names and ingredients.

Proximity across cultures

  • Social distancing is highly promoted to avoid viruses. I understand the rationale; yet am aware of how challenging this can be for cultural groups that value close proximity. Close proximity communicates trust in Black cultures. We have a small locus of space – several inches rather than several feet. Hugs, pats on the back or shoulder, and high fives are only three examples.
  • Students who have challenges adhering to social distancing school policies should not be penalized; adjusting to such policies will take time. As a Black adult, this is difficult for me; let humanity and an unwavering commitment to the education profession help with understanding this challenge for children.

Language across cultures 

  • The percentage of students who are English Language learners is on the rise in the U.S. They matter in this discussion. It cannot be refuted that language is a central or core cultural variable; one that promotes racial pride and cohesion in the face of discrimination. During a health crisis, this is not the time to ignore and discount that all materials and modes of communication (e.g., websites, social media, posters) must be presented in several languages. This includes employing translators to help before, during, and after crises. I appreciate seeing this book on the coronavirus for 2-7 year young children in multiple languages. More books are needed with attention to language and culture.

Curriculum across cultures 

  • Avoid stereotypes in curriculum – lesson plans, literature, and materials — about hygiene and cleanliness
  • Racism and colorism are undeniable and must be intentionally interrogated for the trauma induced. The racist college recruiter is not an anomaly: #HugsToTheVictimizedStudents

Messages and images across cultures

  • Along the lines of language, visuals have impact. Signs in both bathrooms and classrooms with different products for cleaning hands need to depict a very diverse group of children. Microaggressions are verbal and non-verbal. At minimal, give concerted attention to many skin tones, clothing, hair, and body types, along with disability status.

I can’t emphasize enough that students do not leave their culture once they enter schools and otherwise engage in teaching and learning. Black students are cultural beings, often misunderstood in most settings. I am urgently requesting that educators purge themselves of grandiose and delusional notions that one culture (their own) is superior to others, often their Black students. This will help to avoid further spreading a pandemic virus called ‘racism’ that has caused more damage than any health virus that I know of for over three centuries and counting. Millions of Black students are victims of far too many educators’ deficit, myopic, and hegemonic thinking and behavior. This is evidenced by excessive rates in discipline and special education, but the opposite pattern in gifted and talented education and Advanced Placement. #CollateralDamage. It is my understanding that viruses fester in cold places; schools must be warm places – welcoming, relational, and culturally responsive to students and families.

Dr. Donna Y. Ford is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Human Ecology and Kirwan Institute Faculty Affiliate at The Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology. You can follow her on Twitter @DrDYFord

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