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Fargo, Duluth kids among nation's toughest when it comes to recess in sub-zero conditions

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Longfellow Elementary School students stomp through the snow during lunch recess on Friday, Feb. 1, in Fargo. David Samson / The Forum2 / 8
Longfellow Elementary School students head back to the school after lunch recess on Friday, Feb. 1. David Samson / The Forum3 / 8
Longfellow Elementary School students play football in the snow during lunch recess on Friday, Feb. 1. David Samson / The Forum4 / 8
Longfellow Elementary School students play soccer in the snow during lunch recess on Friday, Feb. 1. David Samson / The Forum5 / 8
Longfellow Elementary School students in north Fargo gear up for outdoor recess on Friday, Feb. 1. David Samson / The Forum6 / 8
Playground equipment at Horace Mann Elementary School in north Fargo sits empty during the school closure due to low temperatures on Wednesday, Jan. 30. David Samson / The Forum7 / 8
Students at Longfellow Elementary School in north Fargo spend noon recess indoors on Thursday, Jan. 31. David Samson / The Forum8 / 8

FARGO — Children in this area are certainly among the toughest in the country for enduring frigid weather during school recess, but they do have some stiff competition.

Fargo and West Fargo public schools send elementary-age children outside for recess every day unless the wind chill or “feels like” index is 15 degrees below zero or lower. That means kids play outside when the wind chill is minus 14 or above.

An online search found even colder thresholds in place in a few other school districts.

In Duluth and International Falls, Minn., and in Winnipeg, children in public schools go out for recess unless the wind chill index reaches 18 below.

But the students of Fairbanks, Alaska, may be able to claim the “cold crown,” if there was such a thing.

Sharice Walker, public relations director at the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, said the outdoor-recess threshold there is 20 below zero.

“You know, that’s just how we live. If we didn’t do anything at that cold or colder, we would grind to a halt,” Walker said.

Not all school districts use the same measurement to decide between outdoor and indoor recess. Some use actual air temperature, some use the wind chill index, while others use a combination of the two.

Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said standards vary, depending on the environment people are used to.

“It’s colder than other states, but we know our students are safe because they’re properly dressed,” Gandhi said, adding that they are also closely supervised by staff.

How many days inside?

Several local school districts make recess decisions by consulting the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network, or NDAWN, at North Dakota State University.

Daryl Ritchison, interim director at NDAWN, said weather data on their website, including air temperature and wind chill, is updated every five minutes.

He said having a cold weather threshold is important for schools. “It really makes sense for 7-year-olds running around the playground,” Ritchison said.

A search of the NDAWN site to determine how many times this school year conditions were such to keep kids inside for recess.

There have been 11 school days so far in the 2018-2019 school year when the wind chill was 15 below zero or lower. That total does not include Jan. 29 and 30, when Fargo and other local schools were closed due to the extreme, dangerous cold.

The number falls in line with recent history.

During the same stretch of 2017-2018, there were 10 school days of 15 below wind chill. For the entire school year, there were 21 days that students likely had indoor recess.

For the same period of 2016-2017, there were 15 days that the wind chill met the school district recess threshold. But the likely number of indoor recess days for the entire school year was about the same, at 20 total days.

The cutoff in the East Grand Forks (Minn.) School District is zero.

Chad Grassel, assistant principal at New Heights Elementary, said January recess has been tough. "Definitely, more indoors than out," he said.

As tough as Alaskans

Just as it is around here, the key to keeping young students in Fairbanks, Alaska, warm and safe during their 30-minute recess is wearing appropriate winter clothing. Boots, snow pants, heavy coats, hats, gaiters or scarves and mittens or gloves are a necessity, Walker said.

With several military bases in the community and new people moving in all the time, adjusting to the cold weather can be difficult. Still, it’s important to get outdoors during the school day, and the students are anxious to do so, even when it’s close to 20 below, she said.

When the weather doesn’t permit, they keep busy indoors in the gym or doing other activities. “After a few days of indoor recess, everybody’s a little bit crazy,” she said with a laugh.

Walker has lived in Fairbanks for most of her life, and would put kids from this area up against their counterparts in Alaska in the toughness category, any day.

“Midwesterners know their winter, too. If you moved here from Fargo, you wouldn’t have any problem with the temperatures here,” she said.

Wind chill thresholds for indoor recess

20 below: Fairbanks North Star Borough School District in Fairbanks, Alaska (air temp)

18 below: Duluth and International Falls, Minn., and Winnipeg public schools

15 below: Fargo, West Fargo, Bismarck and Minot, N.D., public schools

10 below: Moorhead, Minn. (or zero air temp), Inver Grove Heights, Minn. (or zero air temp), Williston, N.D., and Anchorage, Alaska, public schools

Zero: Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., public schools and Kalispell, Mont., public schools

13 above: Portland, Maine, public schools

15 above: Des Moines, Iowa, public schools

20 above: Andover, Kan., Platte City, Mo., and Lafayette, Ind., public schools

25 above: Nixa, Mo., public schools

32 above: Pflugerville, Texas, public schools

35 above: Bartlett, Tenn., public schools

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