Is your child’s school prepared to deal with the risks from cold weather? Learn what those risks are, and how you should respond if your child has been hurt.

What should teachers at school do to prevent cold weather injuries for my children?

 

A:

Dangers of winter recessIt’s one of the things parents dread the most: a phone call in the middle of the day, and the voice on the line says, “We’re sorry to tell you there’s been an accident at school. Can you come to the hospital as quickly as possible?”

To their credit, teachers, support staff, and administrators in Washington’s many elementary and intermediate schools take their duties to protect students from harm very seriously. Nevertheless, only a few minutes of inattention can mean a child is unexpectedly injured. Children are especially vulnerable during recess and other breaks in the school day, when the level of supervision drops. In fact, there may be far too few playground monitors available to keep tabs on all the kids, and one or more students may get in trouble.

The risk can be greater still in the winter months, when cold weather presents a danger to kids—and the children may not even recognize that something has gone wrong.

Cold Weather Hazards for Schoolchildren

Hypothermia is the primary risk for children exposed to cold weather. In comparison to adults, children have a greater surface area-to-body mass ratio, so they gain or lose heat to the environment faster.

The human body tries to maintain a steady internal core temperature, traditionally given as 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (a number that may, in fact, vary a little for each individual). It’s important for the internal organs and the brain to remain very close to this temperature, and the body will automatically take steps to maintain the core temperature. For instance, when exposed to colder temperatures, the body will restrict blood flow to the skin, feet, hands, and other extremities. The individual will start shivering (which generates a small amount of heat) and will “feel cold,” prompting him to seek shelter or warmer clothing.

Note that hypothermia can start to set in when the outside temperature is still fairly warm—in the lower 50s—or even higher if winds are brisk or the weather is rainy. Children of young age may not be alert to the effects on their bodies and may not recognize the serious danger they are in—or they may be too distracted by the excitement of recess activities to notice how cold they are. They also may not recognize how decreasing body temperatures are affecting them:

  • Mild hypothermia will cause shivering and make complex tasks difficult.
  • Moderate hypothermia typically is seen when the body’s core temperature falls to about 94º F or lower. It is marked by violent, uncontrollable shivering, garbled speech, loss of motor coordination (for instance, the child may not be able to zip up his clothing), and mental confusion.
  • Severe hypothermia (core temperature below 92º F) is immediately life-threatening. Shivering stops as the body begins to shut down. The person may fall to the ground and curl into fetal position to conserve heat. Consciousness becomes more impaired as the body temperature falls. Breathing becomes shallow and irregular. The heart stops beating in a regular pattern, and eventually will stop.

A second risk from exposure to cold weather is frostbite, sometimes called “frostnip” in its mildest form. This is actual freezing of the skin or other body tissues, which can happen only if the temperature falls to 32º F or below. If the child is experiencing hypothermia, the reduction in blood flow can also promote frostbite.

Young children are especially at risk for frostbite, which can occur even if general hypothermia isn’t present. Kids at play in the snow may not always exercise good judgment: they may remove jackets, coats, and mittens as too confining. As frostbite progresses, it can numb the affected area, and children may not notice fading sensation from their fingers, toes, earlobes, or noses.

As body tissues freeze, ice crystals grow within and between cells. Mild frostbite will damage surface skin, especially on the extremities. More severe frostbite can freeze deeper layers of muscle and bone. The affected area will change color, first reddening and then turning white. The flesh may initially soften, and then turn hard and inflexible. As frostbite penetrates deeper into the skin, the greater the chance that the injured area will not be able to recover during a thawing process; a severe frostbite may require amputation of toes or hands, or may prove deadly.

How Teachers Can Prevent and Treat Cold Weather Injuries

Prevention is key to cold-weather injuries. Ideally, your child’s school will provide age-appropriate instruction about safe play in cold weather before the end of fall.

All children should wear appropriate clothing before going outdoors to play. Teachers should make sure their students are wearing warm, layered clothing, along with hats, scarves, gloves or mittens, and boots or other protective footwear.

There should be reasonable time limits on outdoor play. Students who are chilled should have access to warm shelter.

It will also be vital for the school to provide alert adult supervision during those times kids are exposed to chilly temperatures. The National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care and Early Education recommends that caregivers should check children’s extremities for normal color and warmth at least every fifteen minutes.

Adult supervisors should be available during all scheduled outdoor exercise and physical education periods in addition to recess. This will include outdoor activities after normal school hours, field trips, and daily arrival and departure periods. Enough school personnel should be on hand (and not distracted by other duties) to ensure all children are being observed. If one of the supervisors has to help a student deal with a cold weather medical emergency, there should still be enough adults to monitor the remaining children.

Mild hypothermia can be treated by first aid. The child should be brought into a warm environment and covered in layers of warm, dry clothing or blanket. If needed, he should be given food and warm (not hot) liquids to maintain nutrition and hydration; avoid beverages containing caffeine, which promote water loss.

When treating small areas of mild frostbite, it’s essential that the injured tissue not be rubbed; that will cause ice crystals to rupture cells. The area should be rewarmed gently and slowly by blowing warm air on it or immersing it in warm water with a maximum temperature of 105º F. Do not use direct dry heat, such as a heating pad. Do not break any blisters, which are caused by fluids leaking from cells burst by ice crystals. Care should be taken that the warmed area not refreeze.

More severe cases of hypothermia or frostbite must by treated by emergency rescue professionals.

What to Do If Your Child Has Been Hurt

When the teacher or other adult assigned to supervise children playing outdoors in cold weather neglects her duties, your child may be hurt or even killed. If the school has neglected to provide adequate supervision or failed to open the school doors to kids overcome by cold weather, your child may be the victim. In cases like these, you will want the assistance of an experienced child injury attorney to secure the fair compensation due to you, your child, or your family.

Contact the Andrew Kim Law Firm, PLLC, to tell your side of the story to a sympathetic lawyer. The first consultation is free and confidential, and you have no obligation to hire our firm.