Schools operating with new heat policy, equipment

Steve Keenan/The Fayette TribuneThe West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission's current heat acclimatization and heat illness policy and procedures were developed using information provided by the Korey Stringer Institute. It was approved by the WVSSAC Board of Directors on May 17. The policy describes required practices for WVSSAC schools to follow for the prevention, monitoring, acclimatization and treatment of exertional heat illnesses for student-athletes, faculty and staff of member schools. New equipment such as the Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer shown in operation earlier this week at Meadow Bridge will help schools monitor practice conditions during times of high heat and humidity.

While Sol might be their best friend during a summer beach trip or a lazy day by the pool, the summer workout period and the eventual arrival of interscholastic athletics practice in August ratchets up the intensity — and the possibility of heat-related illnesses — for teenagers.

A portion of a PBS NewsHour report on July 20 read as follows, "At least 50 high school football players in the U.S. have died from heat stroke after falling ill on the field in the past 25 years. And high school athletes in other sports are not immune from the risks — female cross-country athletes are twice as likely to suffer from heat-related illnesses as athletes in any other high school sport."

WAPT, a television station in Jackson, Miss. which is an ABC affiliate, this week reported the death of a 17-year-old Brandon High School football player who collapsed on Monday, Aug. 1 during a summer workout.

Wayne Ryan, an assistant executive director of the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, which oversees the state's public school sports and band activities, said Thursday there have been no recent heat-related deaths in West Virginia high school sports. "There have been some incidents of heat illnesses," he said.

In West Virginia this summer, Ryan and his WVSSAC colleagues have fanned out across the state for their usual series of regional principals' meetings and rules clinics ahead of the 2022-23 school year. Also in recent weeks, as high heat and humid conditions often greet participants daily, the agency has been dispensing new heat sensor equipment and advising school representatives how to utilize it.

The WVSSAC's current heat acclimatization and heat illness policy and procedures were developed using information provided by the Korey Stringer Institute. It was approved by the WVSSAC Board of Directors on May 17. The policy describes required practices for the WVSSAC schools to follow for the prevention, monitoring, acclimatization and treatment of exertional heat illnesses for student-athletes, faculty and staff of member schools. According to SSAC officials, exertional heat illnesses may include full body cramps, syncope/fainting, exhaustion and stroke. The policy applies to all practice and conditioning activities (in season, out of season, summer) in which heat illness poses a risk, both outdoor and indoor.

Ryan said there has been no directed mandate from a higher level to dictate a stronger heat acclimatization and heat illness policy. General safety concerns were "enough of a topic of conversation that we felt our state sports med committee should look at our policy," said Ryan, who noted that a proactive approach was the best route. "The policy is improved as the WBGT (Wet Bulb Globe Thermometer) gives a better overall reading than just the heat index (used in the past)."

The West Virginia Department of Education and the office of Gov. Jim Justice has provided grant funding to the tune of $140,000 that will supply a WBGT and a 100-gallon cooling tub free for each public high school and middle school in the Mountain State that offers football or soccer. The grant that paved the way for the heat acclimatization equipment was part of a larger funding package that also, among other areas, provided monies to help with bus expenses for bands and cheerleaders during playoffs, as well as some other cheer reimbursement, according to Dr. Cindy Daniel, also a WVSSAC assistant executive director:

Ryan said the WBGT, which is Bluetooth compatible, gauges temperature, humidity, cloud cover and wind speed at the time practices are ongoing. Schools will put them in place ahead of practice and follow guidelines established in an accompanying color-coded chart (see sidebar) that sets forth parameters with which heat conditions are dealt.

Ryan said the grant funds provide equipment that create a safer environment for athletes and coaches, and it also allows the resources to be provided to schools which normally might not have money to make such a purchase. The equipment came with training, and there is a video under the sports medicine tab on the WVSSAC website.

"As we have traveled around the state to our various clinics, training and an explanation of the heat illness policy has been provided," Ryan explained. "The responsibility for using and recording data will now be with the schools.

"It is a tremendous resource to help keep the athletes safe. These Kestrel devices are mobile and can be used wherever they are needed. We encourage a school to use wherever possible when heat may be a factor. The grant had sports in the hottest part of the year in mind, with June, July, August and September being those months. If a school did not sponsor an outdoor sport at this time, they did not get a device and might pursue getting one on their own."

"Obviously, safety is paramount for us, for our student-athletes and coaches and staff," Daniel said. The equipment provides indicators to guide the appropriate actions if heat conditions become too risky for a practice, she said. And it's good that the SSAC was provided with the resources to undertake the project, she noted.

While football and soccer are the entry points, the WBGT can also be used in other sports such as volleyball or cheer, Daniel said, to determine conditions in gymnasiums on hot days.

A main thrust currently has been educating coaches, administrators and trainers how to use the monitors properly, according to Ryan.

"It basically takes our temperature, cloud cover, humidity and everything and factors it all into one and puts you in a category that (tells you) the amount of the work you can do or what you can do, how frequent your water breaks, things like that," Meadow Bridge head football coach and athletics director Dwayne Reichard said of the WBGT. "(Being aware of) Heat illness is a big thing now; you hear about kids every year, nationwide and not necessarily just in the state of West Virginia.

"We talk about it over the years that we do things so much different. We've also all talked the way society is is so much different than it was 15, 20, 30 years ago. When we were younger, you were used to being outside, you weren't in air conditioning all the time. Now, it's leaving an air-conditioned home to walk outside and get in an air-conditioned car and go somewhere in an air-conditioned building. Today's kid is rarely out in the elements, and the adjustment period is way different for them than when we were younger, and I think that contributes to a whole lot of the precautionary things that we're doing.

"It's what you've got to do to change with the times. Ultimately, the goal is to keep people safe and have some fun."

Email: skeenan@register-herald.com or follow on Twitter @gb_scribe

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