During a January cold snap, Ronnie Griggs spotted seven of eight kids at a school bus stop in Woodland Park without coats. Or gloves, hats or boots. It was 6:50 a.m. and minus 2 degrees.
“They had on unzipped hoodies, jeans, T-shirts and low-cut tennis shoes. And they were shivering,” said Griggs, the mother of a 12- and a 14-year-old.
The only child with “common sense” was an 8-year-old, she said, because “his dad dressed him and made him wear a coat.”
But it’s not the hill of parental discipline on which she, or some other parents, have decided to make their last stand.
“Once they hit the teenage years, independence is a natural progression,” Griggs said. “Coats were forced on them as little ones, so it’s the first thing to go.”
After years of arguing, cajoling and pleading, Griggs has waved the white flag of defeat.
“I have bigger battles to fight,” she said, “and this is no longer anywhere on the list.”
That could be a mistake, said Dr. Ian Tullberg, medical director of urgent care for UCHealth in Colorado Springs.
Tullberg shares the duty of transporting his 10- and 12-year-old daughters to and from school in northern Colorado Springs. He’s seen and heard it all.
“I see this happening all over, and it’s driving me crazy,” he said. “I see everything when temperatures are below freezing — kids in shorts and jackets, pants and T-shirts, shorts and T-shirts. I cringe, especially when it’s under freezing.”
As supervisor of 17 urgent care clinics, Tullberg knows what can happen.
Frostbite so severe it requires amputation is a worst-case scenario, he said.
“When you go outside when it’s cold, your body temperature starts to decrease and shunts blood from the extremities — the nose, toes, fingers — to keep your core warm, which predisposes you to frostbite.”
Frost-nip, the stage before frostbite, is another possibility. The cold irritates the skin, the body’s first line of defense against germs, and makes it more susceptible to bacteria, Tullberg said.
It turns out grandma was right. Going outside in the cold without being bundled up can lower the body’s immune system and could make you sick, Tullberg said, pointing to a 2014 Yale School of Medicine-led study.
Specifically, covering the mucous membranes of the nose with a scarf or other protection in cold weather can prevent the common cold’s rhinovirus from reproducing, the study says.
“It has been shown our immune system does get decreased in this particular way, which could lead to more infections,” Tullberg said.
Wearing a coat ‘not cool’
Nora Mettlen’s 13-year-old son was one of the kids shivering at the Woodland Park bus stop last month.
“I had to force the hoodie on him,” she said.
Her children were raised in deep East Texas, where jacket weather, let alone heavy coat weather, was not really a thing. Maybe in December and January, she said, but even then, it was iffy.
Not only is it “not cool” to wear a coat to school, Mettlen said, but her son also doesn’t like donning a jacket, saying it restricts his movement.
“And he doesn’t want to carry his coat around all day at school,” she said, “or put it in his locker or backpack.”
He’ll wear a coat when playing in snow, however, Mettlen said.
The issue is “a constant battle” for Stephanie Thomas and her 12-year-old son, who argues that a hoodie, a sweatshirt with a hood, is a coat.
The compromise: OK, unless it’s under 20 degrees. Then a coat is mandatory. No arguing.
“He says all the kids just wear hoodies, and they’re warmer than coats,” Thomas said. “He’s good when he gets on the bus, and what he’s doing after that is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s getting shoved in his locker.”
It’s the same with snow boots, Thomas said. Push-back and resistance.
“Sometimes I wonder if people think I’m neglecting my child,” she said.
“That’s not the case, and I know my kid is not the only one doing it.”
Florissant mother of four Liesl Wyka also has tried to remedy the situation. Two of her children wear coats, and the other two refuse.
Her 15-year-old son’s year-round attire is shorts, a T-shirt and “slippas,” flip-flops from Hawaii, where the family used to live.
“I have to bar the door before he goes outside until he at least puts long pants on,” she said.
The teen says shorts are more comfortable and easier to take on and off.
And forget coats.
“We’ve bought him some really nice coats, but he says he doesn’t like to bother with putting them on and taking them off,” Wyka said. “He just likes to go and not mess with a coat or drag it around or forget it.”
He’ll wear a hoodie and never complains about the cold, she said.
“He doesn’t really suffer from chronic infections or colds, so I’m like, well, OK,” said Wyka, a medical professional.
But on her way out the door, Wyka said, she tends to grab coats and gloves and hats for her two offspring who don’t do it for themselves.
“Just in case,” she said. “You have to have something for emergencies, especially in Colorado. In case we need it, it’s there.”
‘Parents should parent’
That’s the primary concern, Tullberg said: the what-ifs and the emergencies. What if the bus breaks down, and the usual 10-minute wait turns into an hour in 15-degree weather. What if dad or mom is late picking up a kid from an activity and it’s below zero.
Although it’s not uncommon to see Colorado adults barbecuing on a snow-covered deck in shorts, trekking to the mailbox in flip-flops or going to the store sans jacket, he said, those are usually temporary and controllable situations, not potentially dangerous ones.
“Most adult mentors you see, such as sports figures, will be dressed properly for winter weather conditions,” Tullberg said. “When I see kids in second grade not wearing a coat or other outwear, it’s just absolutely horrible. Parents should parent their children and get them to understand the importance of wearing a coat.”
Griggs argues that Colorado kids seem tougher, that their bodies seem to acclimate to the cold weather, and they complain about being too hot in a coat.
“I see kids on a daily basis in shorts and sandals” in winter, she said.
“If the temperature is over 20 degrees, my kids don’t even take hoodies. My kids rarely get sick. I figure their immune system gets a good workout and gets stronger.”
Lost-and-found boxes at schools constantly overflow with coats and other winter apparel left either unintentionally or intentionally, said David Nancarrow, spokesman for School District 49 on the Eastern Plains.
No state policy prevents school staff members from encouraging children to prepare for the cold, which in D-49 is left to individual schools, he said.
“If they want to and have the time, especially on cold days like the ones we’ve had this past week, they certainly could tell kids to bundle up,” Nancarrow said.
Schools also have different trigger points for indoor and outdoor recess. In D-49, if it’s below 17 degrees, elementary schools usually keep kids inside, he said.
Temperature, snow and wind chill factor into the decision-making for recess, school delays and cancellations.
“At the forefront of every decision is student safety,” Nancarrow said. “We encourage students and families to take the appropriate steps to make sure everyone’s safe and warm.”
Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.