My oldest daughter is in Grade 2, and last year her class hatched chicken eggs in the classroom. As a parent, I was somewhat torn about the idea. My main concern was the risk of exposure to Salmonella. A recent article in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports described outbreaks of salmonellosis associated with contact with live poultry. Most cases were associated with handling baby chicks obtained from agricultural stores or by mail order. Infections from classroom and petting zoo-associated contacts were also reported.
Salmonella contamination of eggs and carriage by baby chicks is very common. The CDC recommends that children less than five years old do not have any contact with baby chicks, and that older individuals pay close attention to hygiene in order to prevent transmission of Salmonella. Being six years old, my daughter was just over this age cutoff (although there’s nothing magical about going from five to six years old, so I’d still consider her at somewhat higher risk). So, as long as good infection control practices were used (e.g. hand hygiene), the risk to the children was probably quite low. Were the benefits of hatching eggs in the classroom worth the risk? I don’t know, but she enjoyed the experience and did learn a few things along the way. Concerns about infectious diseases are often dismissed, which is a problem, but sometimes excessive concern gets in the way of life. There’s rarely a clear answer as to what is acceptable and what is too risky, given the potential benefits.
- Eggs and chicks should not be kept in classrooms where children under five years old will be present, or if there are immunocompromised children in the class. It’s unclear whether all teachers would know if they had a high-risk child in the class. Parents of immunocompromised children should make sure teachers know about their child’s increased risk.
- It is prudent for teachers to send home a note to inform parents if eggs/chicks will be in the classroom, or if similar activities involving animals are undertaken.
- Eggs and chicks should be kept in a complete enclosure, in an area that is always supervised when children are around.
- Chicks should always be kept in their enclosure. They should never be taken to areas (e.g. a student’s desk) where food might be consumed.
- Direct contact with eggs and chicks (and their environment) should be kept to a minimum.
- Hands should be thoroughly washed or an alcohol hand sanitizer used immediately after contact with eggs, chicks or their environment.
- Appropriate thought should go into the use of eggs and chicks in classrooms. They should be there for more than the "novelty factor". There should be a clear teaching plan associated with them so they provide the maximum educational value possible.
- Testing eggs and chicks for Salmonella isn’t practical. A negative result cannot guarantee that Salmonella is not there. As well, there are other infectious diseases that are of concern. Consider all eggs and chicks Salmonella-positive and handle them appropriately.