January 8, 2013

Schools check cold before pupils play outside

BY RACHEL OHM Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- After being inside for recess all last week, students at the George J. Mitchell School went outside Monday.

Like many area elementary schools, school officials are taking precautions to protect their students against the cold weather.

Schools across the region are sticking to temperature thresholds for when they will hold recess outdoors and have advised parents to dress their children warmly when coming to school, while health officials have tips for preventing frostbite and hypothermia in children.

"It's been a little colder this year. We didn't have too many days of indoor recess last year," Mitchell Principal Allan Martin said.

The school has a policy of not holding recess outdoors if the temperature falls below 10 degrees with a wind chill.

The same policy holds true at Mill Stream Elementary School in Norridgewock, where Principal Bill Pullen said that Friday was the only day last week when recess was held outdoors.

"We don't want kids coming down with frostbite, so we're very careful," he said.

Pullen said the school distributes a handbook of policies, including winter weather preparation, to parents at the beginning of the year and also sends a letter to parents in October reminding them of proper dress for the winter. Shorts and sandals are not allowed after Halloween, he said.

"Our parents are pretty good about dressing their kids warmly, but I would just remind them to make sure they have boots for the snow and hats, mittens and jackets," he said.

Teachers at Mill Stream keep extra mittens in their classrooms, but it isn't a good idea to share hats because of the potential for head lice, Pullen said.

According to David Connerty-Marin, spokesman for the Department of Education, the state does not have requirements, guidelines or recommendations for recess.

"It's something local schools develop on their own," he said. He said the state does have a model wellness policy schools can refer to in developing their own requirements and that schools are prohibited from withholding recess as a punishment, but there is nothing written on the weather.

Sheila Pinette, a physician and director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, said parents and teachers must be cautious about letting children outside anytime the temperature falls below 32 degrees because there is a risk of frostbite and hypothermia.

"Most kids don't complain, because they like to play outside," she said. "The most important thing is to make sure they are dressed well in layers and are educated about the cold."

She recommends that children don't go outside without snowsuits and that they bring extra clothes to school in case they get wet.

Boots and coats should be water-resistant and mittens should be worn rather than gloves, which are not as warm, she said.

Pinette said children and the elderly are at higher risk of getting frostbite or hypothermia but that checking on children every 10 to 15 minutes while they are outside can help prevent them from getting too cold.

Signs of frostbite, which is the most common risk of being outdoors in the cold, include a whitish gray skin tone, numb or tingly feelings and skin that is waxy or hard, she said.

Pinette said that if a child's skin turns red and the child acts lethargic, that may be a sign of hypothermia, which occurs when the body's internal temperature falls below 95 degrees.

"We need to educate children so they know if they need to go inside and see Mom or tell a teacher they are too cold," she said.

Pinette said with the right education and monitoring, children can safely play outdoors in the winter. She said there was no specific temperature at which children absolutely should stay inside, but rather take precautions as soon as the temperature dips below freezing.

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