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Keeping Kids With Allergies Safe at School

Should stricter guidelines be enacted?

I was working in my son’s classroom last week preparing the snack station when little Jane came skipping in. Jane, I know, from doing the snack station at our co-op preschool, has severe allergies. But to what, I couldn’t remember.

I tried to slyly ask her dad as they approached if she could eat the Honey Maid brand of graham crackers, when 2-year-old Jane in her sweet, preschool voice declared, “I have an EpiPen!”

“What?” I said, kneeling down and trying to decipher what she had said to me in that adorable little intonation.

“I have an EpiPen,” she said, a bit more enunciated with a huge smile.

Her dad gave me the nod that the Honey Maids were OK, and I darted directly to the school’s Wall of Knowledge—the place where each child’s photo and allergen history are listed on a bulletin board—to become more familiar with what child can eat what.

What a huge responsibility!

My son’s preschool is a “nut-free” environment, which means nothing containing nuts will be served nor can be brought in a child’s lunch box. That rules out granola bars, trail mix, almonds and peanut butter in any capacity. It has even become a trend to pack Sunflower Butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. But there are still some food allergies unique to certain children that we have to work around, like those allergic to eggs, dairy or certain types of fruits and vegetables.

The school really looks out for those children who will become sick, or even worse, become anaphylactic, by moderating what foods can exist on campus.

On the other end of the spectrum, my kindergarten son attends an elementary school where the children with allergies are expected to be aware of the types of foods that they are allergic to and abide by the rules set forth by their doctors and parents. For birthday snacks, an e-mail goes around to the class making those parents of allergy-prone children aware of what ingredients are going into the birthday treat. Most parents of children with allergies attach a note for the teacher to make her aware that their child may not eat the birthday treat, but will bring a treat of their own from home.

Allergies are on the rise, there’s no dispute there.  According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, food allergies affect about 6 percent of children under the age of 3. In a 10-year span, from 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of food allergy among children under 18 rose nearly 20 percent. As for peanut allergies, one of the more common, it affects 1.2 percent of all children, about 20 percent of whom outgrow it by age 6. According to the AAAAI, peanut allergies doubled in children from 1997 to 2002.

Schools deal with the allergy issue in many ways. But for parents of children with allergies, it can be a heavy weight to bear, sending your curious first-grader into the world of temptation.

Florence Ku, a Sunnyvale mother of two, says it’s been an enduring struggle to ensure safety at school for her two boys, 11 and 15, who both suffer from peanut and tree allergies. Her eldest son also has an apple allergy.

“We have had to be very careful to read labels and have to order every meal specially," said Ku. "We have had to teach our children to read all labels. We always said, 'Don’t eat it until you read it.' And we’ve told them that if they aren’t sure, then bring it home and we will see together if you can have it.”

Ku found out about her eldest son’s allergy when he was 1, and although only given a small dab of peanut butter, her son had an immediate violent reaction, his body plastered with hives so badly it looked like a burn. He then began vomiting incessantly. Ku says she is not sure how ferocious the reaction would have been if untreated, which is why the thought of lunchtime at school continues to rattle her nerves.

“It is a life-threatening issue; it’s scary,” said Ku. “I have always talked with the teacher and made sure my kids know that they are not to eat any one else’s food and not to allow anyone to touch their food, but I am always worried.”

Some schools are firm “nut-free” establishments, but Ku says most schools and classes adopt their own policies, many of which include no special accommodations for those with life-threatening allergies. This inconsistency has left her boys at times feeling left out or “different.”

Having been through close to 20 separate classes between her two sons, Ku says a nice compromise for those suffering from allergies would be to:

  • Have teachers certified in how to deal with students with life-threatening allergies
  • Implement new policies of table wiping, no-sharing rules during lunchtime and possibly consider “nut-free” environments
  • Educate the children in the class about allergies so they are aware of what makes that child a bit different.
  • Have the parents of allergies notified of birthday treats or year-round parties so the child with allergies can enjoy the party, too, either with a treat brought from home or party offerings that don’t agitate the child.

Ku says her fears of lunchtime allergy attacks are diminishing as her boys get older, but she continues to wonder how those parents without children with allergies feel.

“I have just always wondered what parents with children without allergies think about it. Does it really bother them that much to not have their child bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in their lunch?"

Kathi Robinson March 15, 2011 at 12:21 PM
There is a large allergy clinic within miles of my store (where I have a section which specializes in allergen free goods, but because of its close proximity, we also seem to have a much larger than normal scale of children which have allergies. At one of the local communities near here, there is actually now a school for children with allergies. Obviously, the situation can be monitored a whole lot easier because everyone attending this school is already familiar with the limitations being placed on each other in this setting. So yes, the school does have its advantages but I also personally feel it has its disadvantages also. None of these kids are actually learning how to live with their limitations in the "real world". They are very much cushioned from the difficulties now. The day will come when that protection is going to be taken away and then will they be prepared to guarantee their safety in the rest of the world? Keeping your children safe is a parents #1 priority but the key to that is education. Teach them everything they need to know so when they do get in the real world they have the background and the tools they need to keep themselves safe. Check at www.allergyfreeandsugarfreesnacks.com for a primer on starting the road to learning.
Aimee Lewis Strain March 15, 2011 at 03:18 PM
Thank you so much for your very insightful response, Kathi. You are certainly right, the key to keeping our children safe is through education, but communication as well. The website you suggested is a wonderful tool for parents everywhere, to help familiarize their children, with or without allergies. If I revisit this topic, I would love to hear more about your perspective, given your knowledge and experiences.
Lori Ekman June 02, 2011 at 08:55 PM
Education is important but, what some people tend to forget is that these are children and at what age is it appropriate for them to make life and death decisions? School is a place that is mandated include everyone. Every child has a right to attend safely. If that means no cupcakes at birthday parties so be it. It is not harming anyone to not have them. Also, believe me these children are getting plenty of "real world" experiences everyday with how they are different. But, they will still be protected by the ADA. The ADA covers universities and the work place.

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