Schools are grandly called a home away from home, where children and young adults spend anywhere between seven to eight hours in a day. However, only select schools in the city, make the cut when it comes to providing quality sanitation to its students.

K. Radha, whose sons study at a reputed all-boys school in the city, calls herself an anguished parent. “I do not pack chapathis for their lunch because the boys say that, often, there is just a bucket of water to wash hands. They drink only four glasses of water, because they say they can hold only that much,” she says, adding that the problem gets worse during PT periods.

Many students and parents point out issues such as poor maintenance, stench, disrupted water supply and broken latches in city schools. T. Mary, a class VII student at a Villivakkam school, says she uses the toilet in the school as a last resort. “There is always a stench emanating from it, and water supply is irregular. In one of the units the latch is broken, and my friend holds the door from outside,” she says. Students of schools in Nungambakkam and Chetpet also complained of stench and poor maintenance.

In the context of the poor performance of city schools that applied for school sanitation ratings conducted by the CBSE, such voices raise questions about how private schools, perceived to be of a higher standard, too lag behind when it comes to providing clean and adequate number of toilets.

According to the CBSE website, only the Ashok Leyland School in Hosur got a ‘blue’ rating, which means it complied with 75 per cent to 90 per cent of the norms. A CBSE official said the ratings would soon be made mandatory and that schools have been allowed to improve the conditions and obtain a fresh certificate four months after date of issue of the earlier certificate. Many schools, however, did not apply for these ratings.

J. Ajeeth Prasath Jain, secretary, Chennai Sahodaya School Complex, says many CBSE schools in the city are going to apply for the school sanitation rating before September 23, the next deadline.

The National School Sanitation Manual recommends one toilet for every 80 students, taking into consideration queuing time, ‘peak’ hours (lunch/break time), and strength of the school.

For day schools, it recommends one toilet unit for 40 girls and a female teacher with one urinal for 20 girls (See box).

The norms for design of school toilets, urinals and washing facilities have been defined in the National Building Code.

The WHO recommends one toilet per 25 girls and a female staff, and one toilet plus urinal for 50 boys and one male staff.

It says that toilets should be no more than 30 metres away from users and the number of toilets depends not only on the number of students and staff, but also on when they are commonly allowed access to these toilets. Break times should be adjusted creatively to make access easy, the guidelines suggest.

Most importantly, it says that no toilet is complete without access to a hand-washing point and soap. In Chennai, barring students in a handful of schools, others said, though they had clean toilets, no soap or hand wash was available.

K. Srimati, teacher at a government school in Tiruvottiyur, says though there are six toilets in her school, two for boys and the rest for girls, students seldom use them because they are poorly maintained. They do not have running water most of the time, and many girls refrain from attending classes during menstruation, she says.

On the issue of maintenance, a senior official of the school education department said, last year, 5,000 non-teaching staff vacancies were filled and another 4,000 vacancies would be filled this year. Along with provision for sanitary napkins, schools would soon have incinerators for their disposal, said the official. However, students too have an important role to play in keeping schools toilets clean and usable, he said.

Padmasani Venkatramanan, professor and head of department, Sri Ramachandra Medical College, says the habit of ‘holding’ can lead to adverse health conditions. “I come across many children who say they do not use the toilets in their school, because of the usual problems. Inadequate water intake and infrequent urination can lead to urinary tract infection, kidney stone formation, fatigue, constipation and dehydration,” she says.

Many adolescent girls complain of inflammation and infection, she says, adding that utmost importance must be given to washing hands after using the toilet. “The simple act of providing soaps to students will go a long way in preventing water-borne diseases,” she says.

(The names of students and teachers have been changed.)

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