The Michener girls can count the number of times they’ve been sunburned. That’s how mindful they are of keeping their very fair skin healthy and reducing their odds of getting skin cancer.
Before field day at Point Defiance Elementary School on Tuesday, Violet, 11, had gotten one bad burn at day care years ago. Zoe, 9, once got a touch too pink on her shoulders, and Eleanor, 7, had never been burned.
After field day, they were all so burned their mother, Jesse, took them to the emergency room. Their skin was blistering, and Violet and Zoe had chills and headaches.
The girls, who are new to the school this year, had never been to a field day. This one started out rainy, and the girls went to school without putting on sunscreen.
Still, Michener regrets not slathering it on anyway. It would have stopped any bad rays as the day cleared from 10 a.m.–noon. It would not have helped from 12:30–3:30 p.m., when the sun really came out, and any sunscreen applied early in the morning would have lost its protective superpowers. The girls were sweating and playing volleyball, disc football, running three-legged races and tossing water balloons and wet sponges. They couldn’t see their own faces.
“I was starting to get really, really hot,” Violet said of the end of the afternoon. “At the end of field day, we went inside, and I asked my teacher if I was sunburned. She said yes.”
Zoe, who has a form of albinism that affects her vision and makes her skin sensitive, used her hands to shield her eyes because students aren’t allowed to wear hats at school.
“She generally seeks shade at school,” Michener said. “That’s why her face is not burned. She hides her face.”
Violet’s face, though, was shocking, and she was feeling woozy. Both girls felt sick.
“Zoe called me and said, ‘Mom, I’m really sunburned. I don’t think I can walk home,” Michener said. “I told her she could.”
She was shocked when she saw them. She took all three to Tacoma General Hospital and came home with a care plan that involved rest, painkillers, salves and three pages of warnings about sunburns and advice on preventing them.
Michener was steamed, and not just at the teachers who noticed the girls getting red but did not send them indoors. She was furious at state law and school district policy that impeded access to the sunscreen that would have protected them: Kids in Tacoma Public Schools are not routinely allowed to pack a tube of sunscreen in their backpacks and put it on when they need it.
In a twisted iteration of nanny state thinking, that’s supposed to be for their own good. Instead, it snarls their ability to protect themselves.
“All over-the-counter and prescription medications require a doctor’s note, whether they’re administered by staff or the students themselves,” said district spokesman Dan Voelpel. “Unmonitored, it could be shared with other students and cause an allergic reaction.”
Instead, Voelpel said, the district encourages parents to put sunscreen on their children in the morning. In this case, with the sweat and the water and the elapsed time, that would not have worked.
A June 7 change in state law provides Tacoma’s School Board to catch policy up to what we are learning about the cancer danger sunburns pose. There’s latitude in the law about how easy the board can make it for a kid to get a splash of protection while at school, said the district’s attorney, Shannon McMinimee.
As a lawyer, she looks for possible liabilities and advises board members to make policy that protects against them. She fears bouncy houses and dislikes field days for the risks they pose.
Around the office, she said, they call her the fun killer. True to that image, she said it would have been a good idea to send the extra-pink kids indoors, out of the sun. She has a point, as far as stopping further skin damage goes.
But that’s mitigation, not prevention.
If the school board takes up this issue, and it should, members should consider how best to save students’ skins before they cover the district’s email@example.com 253-597-8677 blog.thenewstribune.com/street