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States begin to allow sunscreen in schools

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Each year in the U.S., over 5.4 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer are treated in more than 3.3 million people, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. In 2017, an estimated 87,110 new cases of invasive melanoma will be diagnosed in the U.S. (Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun via AP)

Students at Valley Ridge Academy in Northeast Florida used to have to trek to the nurse's office to get sunscreen before playing outdoors.

"By the time they're done, they've missed half of their 20-minute recess," said Hayley Yost, a kindergarten teacher at the K-8 school.

But students will no longer need a doctor's note and a trip to the nurse to protect themselves from the sun's cancer-causing rays. The Sunshine State this summer joined the ranks of states allowing students to bring sunscreen to school and apply it without a nurse's help or a prescription.

Sunscreen is considered an over-the-counter drug by the Food and Drug Administration, like some allergy medicines and aspirin, meaning teachers cannot slather it onto students' shoulders without the state's approval. But parents don't want their children outside without it, either.

Florida's sunscreen law, part of a massive, controversial education bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed in June, went into effect July 1. The bill touches on everything from increased charter school funding to sunscreen to teacher bonuses. It also mandated 20 minutes of recess in elementary schools.

"I think the momentum from the education bill allowed it to pass," said Republican Rep. Manny Diaz, the sponsor of the bill.

The bill authorizes "a student to possess and use a topical sunscreen while on school property or at a school-sponsored event or activity under certain circumstances."

With that vague language, Diaz expects school districts to establish their own policies about logistics such as who applies the sunscreen and where it is kept.

Still, he was shocked Florida had not already allowed sunscreen in schools.

"Oftentimes, policy we pass in Florida ends up progressing and getting into other states, so I believe this will be the case," he said. "Even though, in our case, we have a little more sunshine than other states."

Ten states, including Florida, have passed laws in the last several years allowing students to bring sunscreen without a trip to the school nurse. Louisiana, Alabama, Arizona, Utah, and Washington passed similar legislation this year. Bills are pending in Georgia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

In Mississippi, the bill died in committee this year. That bill would have required the state's Department of Education to devise a sun safety policy for school districts.

Republican Mississippi state Sen. Terry Burton said it's common-sense legislation he plans to reintroduce next session, and it likely fell through the cracks as legislative deadlines neared.

"With the prevalence of skin cancer, particularly in the Deep South, where the sun shines a lot even on days when it's cloudy, the UV rays are still there in a very strong way; I think it's particularly important," he said.

He said he may work directly with the state Education Department to have the agency write a regulation on allowing students to use sunscreen.

"Anything we can do from the premise of preventative measures, particularly with cancers, anything that folks in the position of leadership and elected officials can do ... we should do."

Passing a sun safety policy as part of a larger education bill also is a possibility, he said.

"This is one of those things that falls within reason," he said. "If a child goes out in the sun, they should have sunscreen. We tell them that when they go to the beach; we tell them that when they're on summer vacation; we tell them that when they're at home. Why not allow that to take place in school as well?"

More than 5.4 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are treated in more than 3.3 million people in the U.S. each year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. In 2017, an estimated 87,110 new cases of invasive melanoma will be diagnosed.

Until 2014, the FDA listed tanning beds in the same, low-risk class as Band-Aids and tongue depressors. The agency has upgraded them to moderate-risk devices.

Maryland dermatologist Dr. Ali Hendi, a spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation, said the state laws are a step in the right direction but far from the final move in preventative care.

Early prevention is paramount, as skin cancer symptoms may take 10 to 20 years to manifest, he said.

"Kids' skin is so fragile, any sunburn may leave an impact," he said. "The more sunburns, the more likely you are to get skin cancer."

He has never prescribed sunscreen for a student to use at recess.

"I haven't had a patient ask me," he said. But he gives his patients the same advice he gives to his children.

"If you go outside, make sure you have on sunscreen," he said. "The goal is not to test it."

Students in countries such as New Zealand and Australia can be sent home if they forget to bring a hat to protect themselves from the sun, yet many schools in the U.S. ban baseball caps and wide-brimmed hats.

"We're lagging behind in public policies," Hendi said.

Yost looks forward to next school year, when she'll advise parents to add a bottle of Coppertone to their child's backpack.

"But they would have to independently apply it as time is limited," she said. "Better off just bringing a hat as their walk home probably takes longer than recess."