TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida is well-known for producing high-caliber high school athletes, in part thanks to its near year-round sunshine and warm weather.
But Florida also has the dubious distinction of leading the nation in the number of high school athletes who have died from heat strokes while exercising. Four students have died since 2011.
A House education panel this week unanimously approved a bill that would require the Florida High School Athletic Association to take steps to prevent heat strokes. That would include mandating that schools have cold-water immersion tubs, cool zones and special thermometers to help save the lives of high school athletes.
The bill also would require school employees or volunteers with training in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and the use of automated external defibrillators to be present at each extracurricular athletic event.
While the proposed bill had unanimous support from the House PreK -12 Innovation Subcommittee, it faced concerns about costs associated with the mandated equipment, including the special thermometers, which according to the staff analysis of the bill can cost about $120. The thermometers measure temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover.
“We are all small school districts,” said Bob Harris, a lobbyist for the Panhandle Area Educational Consortium. “A lot of our districts do not have the funds to do that. So we ask you to consider perhaps a one-time appropriation to try help us a little bit.”
The most severe form of heat stroke, exertional heat stroke, can progress to multi-organ system failure and death if not promptly recognized and treated.
Such was the case of 16-year-old Zach Martin Polsenberg, who in 2017 died of heat stroke brought on by a summer football training in Fort Myers.
Laurie Martin Giordano testified in support of the bill. She told House members she was by his side for 11 days while he struggled to survive despite his major organs shutting down, the result of heat stroke.
“Those were the most excruciating 11 days of my life and his,” she said, adding, “If he had survived, he would be speaking to you today on behalf of his other schoolmates, classmates and kids that he doesn’t even know and probably never would meet. He couldn’t make it here. So I am here instead.”
The Florida High School Athletic Association is the official governing body for interscholastic athletics and enacts policies and guidelines about the safety of students.
According to its website, the association has almost 800 member schools and requires the schools to annually review its education course on heat illness prevention.
House PreK-12 Innovation Chairman Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, said current efforts don’t go far enough to protect the athletes.
“In the absence of affirmative action by this body we may leave our high school athletes vulnerable to preventable conditions,” said Massullo, who is a physician.