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Wind chill nips outdoor recess for Northland students

A group of Stowe Elementary fifth-graders held an impromptu gymnastics session Thursday, practicing splits and backbends. They were indoors for recess on a day when single-digit temperatures left open the choice of indoor or outdoor play, said pr...

Indoor recess at Stowe
Fifth-graders, including Katie Brown (left) and Abby Longnaker, jump rope during recess in the gym at Stowe Elementary School in Duluth on Thursday afternoon. The kids were kept inside because of a subzero wind chill. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

A group of Stowe Elementary fifth-graders held an impromptu gymnastics session Thursday, practicing splits and backbends. They were indoors for recess on a day when single-digit temperatures left open the choice of indoor or outdoor play, said principal Larry Udesen.

"But we had an option to use the gym today," he said, with no gym classes scheduled. "Some days like this we go out."

With the National Weather Service forecasting a temperature of 9 below zero at recess time today, principals in the Duluth area will be basing decisions about sending kids out on a mixture of science and common sense. Chances are they'll be inside.

Bitterly cold temperatures last week caused some Northland schools to re-evaluate their recess decisions and caused others to keep students inside. It was below zero in Duluth about noon on Jan. 23, for example, and 14 below early that morning.

Esko Superintendent Aaron Fischer heard parent complaints last week for the first time in his nine years with the district for allowing students outside for recess one day. So he sat down with principals to talk over the district's cold-weather policy, which keeps kids inside at below-zero temperatures but doesn't have wind chill guidelines.

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"We didn't have any kids hurt," he said. "But we want to make sure we are making good decisions."

Esko doesn't have a nearby weather station, he said, so determining wind chill is difficult.

"What happens down at the lake versus up on the hill versus in Moose Lake is all different," he said. "We have to read and react a little bit."

The Duluth school district follows guidelines set by the National Weather Service. Students stay inside when the temperature reaches below zero or if the wind chill is 18 below, which is the Weather Service's cautionary level for wind chill.

However, principals and teachers can use discretion on whether they send their students out for recess or outdoor classes, said Assistant Superintendent Ed Crawford, who heard one recess complaint last week.

"They don't need to wait until the temperature hits zero to monitor cold weather," he said. "They need to be attentive to conditions and use good judgment when planning activities outside."

Nettleton Elementary principal Stephanie Heilig said she tends to err on the side of caution.

"I go by what I call the 'mom standard,'" she said. "If it's too cold for my kids, it's too cold for these kids."

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She and her staff monitor weather sites and go outside and check the conditions themselves. Her students have plenty to do inside, she said, with board games, Legos, cribbage, art projects and chess.

Recess at most schools in the area ranges from 20 to 30 minutes.

Hermantown Middle School doesn't have a written weather policy. Principal Kerry Juntunen said he relies on the Duluth office of the National Weather Service for advice and listens to its advisories. Students stayed inside during last week's coldest days, he said.

"We were a little stir-crazy by Friday," he said. "But it's pretty much a no-brainer. If you have wind chills that are going to cause frostbite, you don't go outside."

A wind chill of 25 below is a good threshold for keeping kids inside, said Kevin Kraujalis, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth. That is its advisory level.

"That's when, if you're out for a decent amount of time, your exposed flesh could get frostbite," he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, frostbite signs include white or grayish skin that feels firm or waxy, and numbness.

Being dressed properly for the weather is often an issue at schools.

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Principals said if kids can't find something that fits or a matching set of mittens in a lost-and-found bin, they can stay inside for recess. Hats aren't shared because of the chance of also sharing lice. Some schools have new items for such situations.

While elementary-aged kids usually arrive well-bundled, middle-school students sometimes aren't, Juntunen said.

"I have eighth-graders getting off the bus with flip-flops and shorts," he said.

When students are properly swaddled for the outdoors, exposed facial skin is the biggest concern.

"Generally speaking, they will go out and move around like they were shot from a cannon," Udesen said Wednesday. "Today they came in, and a couple of these young men, I took their hats off and it was like they were warm muffins in a plastic bag."

Making a shot
Fifth-grader Josiah Caldwell makes a shot during recess in the gym at Stowe Elementary School on Thursday. The school kept the kids inside because of cold weather and the availability of the gym. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Related Topics: EDUCATIONESKOWEATHER
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