UNALASKA -- While most American third- and fourth-graders are concentrating on the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, children in Unalaska are getting additional lessons in skills to help them survive in the harsh climate of the Aleutian islands.
Teacher Mary Downs has had her students studying about hypothermia and how to dress for the weather, taking them hiking in the rain and learning about how a simple garbage bag could keep them dry and warm.
So it was only natural, on an island supported by the fishing industry and surrounded by water, that her next lessons focused on cold-water survival skills.
''The kids have been studying commercial fishing, learning about dressing properly and how to be prepared on the water,'' Downs said. ''Even though we live in a fishing community, a lot of kids have never been on the water. They have no idea how to take care of themselves. We are teaching them how to be on the water and be safe -- even on a dock.''
Downs and fellow teacher Beth Nehus enlisted the help of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Fire Department and emergency personnel and volunteer parents to put together an hour-long hands-on cold-water survival class.
Little bodies wriggled and squirmed as the children struggled into their bright orange immersion suits, laughing at the effort and the way they looked. Eight at a time, they dropped over the edge of the pool and into the water, the suits instantly clamping down on their skin.
''It doesn't hurt,'' said Kyle Karvia, 9. ''It just feels gooshey.''
Parent volunteers Chris Graves and Bill Guitard had the group try to pull their knees up toward their chins in the water. They asked the group to swim together and try to link arms in a circle. It proved to be more than most of the groups could do.
''I couldn't pull my knees up,'' said a surprised Jack Pound Jr., 9. ''I kept flipping over.''
Across the pool, another group sat watching dramatic footage of Coast Guard at-sea rescue attempts. They saw a man in a survival suit swept right off the deck of his ship, pitching wildly in an ice-choked and turbulent sea.
''It's scary,'' said Caroline Nguyen, 10, as she watched the videotape. ''He wouldn't be alive anymore if he didn't have his suit on.''
Boatswains Mate 2 Iain Wells of the local Coast Guard marine detachment talked to the students about the Guard and its mission, why survival equipment is so important here, and what can happen if a person falls into the cold water of the Bering Sea.
''A lot of kids really don't know what the Coast Guard does,'' Wells said. ''They just see the big boat we have and think that's it.''
Wells talked about cold-water safety and explained how many people died at sea because they were caught unprepared. He handed out a pamphlet on hypothermia and cold-water survival, as well as a laminated quick reference for safety equipment, to each child.
Volunteer Maria Karvia explained to some children about personal flotation devices, how they worked and why they were important. The children quickly donned a PFD and hit the pool, learning what it felt like to suddenly be in the water strapped into something that would keep them afloat.
Downs was pleased with how students took to the project.
''They were excited and thought it was fun,'' she said. ''They were surprised at the pressure that forms around their bodies in a survival suit. They probably will never have to be in an immersion suit, but now they know to ask where the PFDs are on a boat, and how to put on a suit if they ever had to.''
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