A weighty subject: Local schools take steps to help students prevent injury by lightening their backpacks

For The Baltimore Sun

On an average school day last year, Piper Bond carried six notebooks, two binders, several textbooks and a laptop computer around Gilman School in his black Jansport backpack. The pack weighed between 35 and 40 pounds – the equivalent of an 8-by-8-inch concrete block.

Some days, he also even carried a canvas tote bag for additional books.

“I liked having everything on me and not having to go to my locker,” the 17-year-old senior from Roland Park said. “That’s been my mindset since I’ve been in school.”

But too much weight, along with wearing a backpack incorrectly, can lead to poor posture, fatigue, muscle soreness and even lower back pain, experts said. According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, more than half of students carry a backpack that is heavier than the recommended 10 percent of a student’s total body weight.

As students started classes this week at local public schools, awareness, alternating schedules, time between classes for locker visits and more online textbooks are helping to lighten the load. Still, there’s room for improvement, experts said.

“I think awareness is growing,” said Karen Jacobs, professor of occupational therapy at Boston University. “But have we seen big, big changes? I don’t think so.”

Sixteen years ago, Jacobs founded National School Backpack Awareness Day. The goal of the day, which this year is Sept. 20, is to educate communities about the health effects heavy backpacks or backpacks worn improperly can have on children.

“It typically starts with discomfort,” Jacobs said. “If you don’t make adjustments, it can lead to more of a pain.”

Over time, heavy backpacks can even cause short-term respiratory problems, she said.

“You can just picture someone carrying a backpack that’s too heavy, and it’s pulling on their chest,” Jacobs said.

Middle and high school students are affected the most because they travel from class to class throughout the day, experts said.

“Every fall, in the beginning of a semester, especially with the ninth-graders, we’ll get a flurry of kids coming in complaining their back hurts, apparently not realizing why,” said Dr. Charles Shubin, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center who consults at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

Shubin and his colleagues began noticing the issue 10 years ago. To determine just how much students were carrying, they started weighing students’ backpacks.

“I didn’t believe they would weigh as much as they did,” he said. “We found bags in the 50- to 60-pound range. You think, ‘How can that be?’ We looked in the bags to see what was weighing so much. Books weigh a lot.”

To help reduce the weight, Shubin and his colleagues now educate students about the risks of carrying heavy backpacks. School nurses also look at how much students are carrying when they come in complaining of shoulder and back pain and encourage them to wear both shoulder straps instead of one, Shubin said.

Despite this, many students still carry their backpacks incorrectly, he said.

“I ask them, ‘Why aren’t you wearing both straps?’” Shubin said. “They say, ‘Well, it’s not cool.’ ”

In Howard County public schools, teachers and administrators are “constantly looking for ways to decrease weight without having detrimental impacts to instruction,” especially at the middle and high school levels, said schools spokesman Brian Bassett.

Three years ago, the school system adopted Canvas -- an online system that allows teachers to move lessons and assignments out of textbooks and onto a digital platform, Bassett said.

Several county school systems, including Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll and Howard counties, are using more online textbooks, reducing the need for students to carry heavy books from class to class. And in Carroll County and Howard County public schools, some classes have two sets of textbooks – one to keep at school and one to take home.

“There is certainly more that can be done,” Bassett said. “Digital solutions provide many solutions but also raise issues of inequity for students that have different levels of access to technology at home.”

At Anne Arundel County public schools, high school students have alternating schedules, which also reduces the materials they carry throughout the day, said Bob Mosier, schools spokesman.

“You have a three-ring binder for A Day and a different three-ring binder for B Day,” he said. “So you’re not carrying around books, notebooks and binders for classes that you’re not going to have that day.”

Lockers can help, as well, although some students choose not to use them. In Howard County, lockers are offered to any middle and high school student who wants one. But students only have five minutes between classes to access them.

“The schools are so big and hallways so crowded, they can’t get there between classes, so that adds to the weight they carry during the day,” said Meg Boyd, an Elkridge resident and Howard High School parent.

In Baltimore County, students are encouraged to go to their lockers often, according to Nancy Mattucci, a nurse and school health supervisor for the school system.

“We don't really like children carrying backpacks around in school,” she said. “And it's not just a backpack [weight] thing but a safety thing in general. We want to be able to see what kids are carrying, so they are often encouraged to take what they need for the next two classes and then go back.”

At Gilman, students have 15-minute breaks between classes when they can drop off unneeded books and binders in lockers, said Robert Heubeck, head of the upper school. Students also have 70-minute classes that meet every other day, so they don’t have to carry all their books at the same time. Still, many freshmen, sophomores and even juniors carry 40-pound backpacks, Heubeck said. Reasons include wanting to have every book with them at all times and using class transition time to talk with friends rather than visit lockers.

“They look like they’re ready to fall backwards,” Heubeck said after greeting students on the second day of school last week.“Some of these backpacks are so heavy.”

He added that he sometimes sees students carrying them around even when they don’t have class.

“What's happening culturally is these guys feel like they have to have a backpack wherever they go,” he said. “Even when you see them walk around campus when school’s not going on.”

Somewhere around senior year, things change, he said.

“The older boys, the seniors for sure, you don’t see them carrying big backpacks,” Heubeck said. “I think they figure out a better way of budgeting and planning their time. … I also think there’s a coolness factor. If you’ve got a big backpack on your back as an upperclassman, that’s not a cool thing to do.”

Last spring, when Bond hurt his back playing lacrosse, he began bringing only his computer and the books he needed for the day to school to avoid aggravating his injury. He also used his locker more between classes. The lighter backpack made traveling across campus much easier, he said.

“My parents have been telling me since my freshman year, ‘You’ve got to offload some of this stuff,’ ” he said. “They encouraged me to not carry books around all the time. But it was kind of a personal preference.”

Now, as he starts his senior year, he has some advice for his fellow students.

“Understand your schedule and see what’s most convenient for you,” he said. “If you have the opportunity to offload some things during the day or after lunch, then do it. You don’t want to be lugging around 40 pounds of books every day. It’s just not good for you.”

How to properly wear a backpack

Under the American Occupational Therapy Association guidelines, a 100-pound student should not carry a backpack that’s more than 10 pounds. To prevent students from getting weighed down this school year, experts offer the following tips:

  • Know what to buy: Buy backpacks with wide, padded shoulders, breathable fabric and, for middle and high school students, a hip belt. A hip belt takes the weight off the shoulders and distributes it more evenly, says Karen Jacobs, professor of occupational therapy at Boston University.
  • Balance the weight: The closer to the core, the more stability students will have, said Nancy Mattucci, school health supervisor for Baltimore County Public Schools. Place heavier items closer to the back of the child.
  • Use both straps: Wearing one strap can cause children to lean to one side and lead to discomfort, Jacobs said.
  • Adjust straps as needed: Make sure the backpack fits snugly but not too tightly, Jacobs said.
  • Don’t let it droop: The bottom of the backpack should not go beyond the tailbone, Jacobs said. The American Occupational Therapy Association recommends packs never rest more than four inches below a child’s waistline.
  • Weigh what your child is carrying: Have students stand on a bathroom scale wearing their backpacks, said Dr. Charles Shubin, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center. Then, weigh them without the backpacks to determine how much the pack weighs.
  • Fill an empty water bottle at school: It’s important to stay hydrated, but water bottles can add a pound or two to the overall weight, Jacobs said.
  • Take the backpack off at the bus stop: Why keep it on while you’re standing and waiting for the bus, Jacobs asked.
  • Empty the backpack nightly: When parents are not monitoring what’s in the backpack, the kids don’t empty it, Jacobs said. Make it a nightly, family affair.

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