With food allergies among students on the rise, school administrators, teaching staff, and clinic nurses are among the individuals tasked with the daily management of keeping a student with food allergies safe and included in all school activities. It’s a delicate balance of lowering the risk while providing the same services to all students. However, many of us may have noticed a shift in school culture in recent years. This change includes a more healthy approach to foods and specifically how food allergies are addressed in schools.
Imagine sending your child off to school, not knowing if today was the day you were going to get the call that your child is having trouble breathing, epinephrine will be administered, and that you need to meet the ambulance at the school before it leaves for the hospital. This is a daily fear for so many parents, but one that became a reality for food allergy advocate and expert Thanita Glancey.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Thanita about her personal experience with food allergies and the advocacy work she has done to ensure that schools in Loudoun County, Virginia, are safer for students. Even if your child does not deal with food allergies, this interview is important to help develop an empathetic understanding of the importance of some of the new school changes and rules pertaining to food in the classroom.
Learning Liftoff: Thanita, can you provide us with a brief intro about yourself and the journey that led you to be involved in food allergy advocacy?
Thanita Glancey: I am a mother of three kids, one of which has several IgE-mediated food allergies. My advocacy journey, like many others before me, started by chance. Truth be told, it was not a title or a journey I envisioned myself in when thinking of my future. That said, when my child was diagnosed with life-threatening health impairments, I saw no other option. I advocate for all my kids to make their world as safe as possible.
I’d like to preface that when I refer to “food allergies” or a “food allergy,” I am referring to an IgE-mediated food allergy. This is an allergic response to a food that can cause anaphylaxis, which is a potentially life-threatening reaction. The term food allergy is commonly used when describing a food intolerance, which is different in comparison. A food intolerance is not IgE-mediated and, therefore, does not result in anaphylaxis.
Food allergies have been a growing concern in our community. A 2013 CDC study reported a 50 percent rise of children diagnosed with food allergies in the U.S. between 1997 and 2011. Research estimates that up to 15 million Americans have a food allergy. That’s approximately nine million adults and six million children—one in 13 children in every classroom. My youngest was diagnosed with food allergies while in preschool. Her food allergies increased in both severity and quantity each year, without an explanation. Currently, there is no cure.
LL: How did you first know food allergy awareness in school was an issue that needed to be addressed?
TG: My advocacy efforts to raise awareness for food allergies began after several unfortunate incidents. My child had an anaphylactic reaction as a kindergartner. This led me to ask questions, which led to more questions. I found schools were inconsistent with their knowledge of food allergies and unaware of the potentially life-threatening risks. I realized that it was my duty as a parent to ensure that I was asking not just any questions, but the right questions. My child’s school and I then worked together to build an Individualized Health Care Plan and a 504 plan to fit my child’s individual needs.
After this event, I did not want another parent to experience the fear I felt of almost losing my child. This led me to research organizations and best practices. I stumbled upon Loudoun Allergy Network and joined as a member in 2009. I grew into a leadership role within the group and have been the support group leader for the past seven years.
LL: What is the most pressing issue that students face concerning food allergies?
TG: It is difficult to respond with one particular issue because each student with a food allergy is an individual. Therefore, each individual has his/her own experience that he/she may struggle with, and it may differ from each other even if they have the same allergy! However, food in an educational environment can be problematic, and here’s why—it is difficult to gauge when a food allergy will become severe. With the different sensitivity of each food-allergic student, best practices dictate that food in the learning environment is best omitted.
Additionally, IgE-mediated food allergies are considered a disability under the Americans Disabilities Act because the major life activities of eating, breathing, and digestion, to name a few, are substantially limited. Further, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 enforces the ADA and ensures public agencies that receive federal financial assistance are compliant and prohibit the discrimination of students with disabilities.
Therefore, in order to be compliant, schools must safely accommodate students with food allergies. If the environment is unsafe, the student cannot access education as equally as their peers. Best practices would be to lower the risks where manageable. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves if it is necessary to have the food in order for the students to learn. Or is there another way?
Finally, students with food allergies may find it difficult to concentrate on the curriculum currently being taught if they know their allergen is in the room. It is a barrier to their education.
LL: How do parents of children with food allergies cope with the fear of sending their children to school every day?
TG: Fear and anxiety may stem from the feeling of not being in control. Therefore, parents who have children with food allergies may find some comfort with planning ahead. Early on, prior to the new school year, research the school and find out if they have a food allergy policy or guideline. Search online, ask other families and/or contact the school to inquire about policies or guidelines. Once you have completed your research, request a meeting with the school in writing to discuss a plan to accommodate your child’s individual needs. Depending on whether your child will enter preschool or k-12, private or public, the type of plan may vary.
However, it is important that your student has an Emergency Allergy Action Plan. This will detail instructions for staff should a reaction occur. It is the response to a reaction. A board certified allergist or physician can complete this form. It is common when entering k-12 for an Individualized Health Care Plan (IHCP) to be completed. This plan lists accommodations necessary for your child to access his/her education. This plan is to prevent a reaction from occurring, as best as one can. Note that the IHCP is an individualized plan and, therefore, may list accommodations that meet the individual needs of the student. Therefore, each IHCP may differ and can be one to three pages depending on the student’s individual needs.
Parents may also decide to submit a referral for their child to receive a Section 504 plan if their child’s school receives federal financial assistance. The Section 504 Plan ensures their child receives equal access to education, as equally as their peers.
LL: What do you wish parents of students without allergies knew about what life is like living with food allergies?
TG: What I would like parents who do not live with food allergies to know is that our kids are just like yours. Our kids want to fit in and not stand out. Anything we can do to work together and make them feel comfortable (safe) and happy (included) is welcomed. Additionally, as a parent of a child with food allergies, planning ahead is important. Just like our kids, we parents not only want our kids to fit in, we would like to fit in, too.
Here’s a glimpse into what life is like for a family managing food allergies:
- We say a quick prayer in our head every time our child leaves the house to return to us the way our child left. No matter where our child leaves the house to go, be it school, a trusted friend’s house, even with family—we pray.
- We make safe versions of treats to look and almost taste like the real thing, even if it means staying up past 1:00 AM just to have to wake at 5:45 AM the next morning.
- For long road trips, we spend days pre-making safe foods. Then we pack the car with a cooler filled with these foods, a toaster-oven, and a mini-microwave. We hope that the safe foods will stay fresh until our final destination, while making several stops for more ice!
- We call restaurants in advance to speak with the manager and sometimes the head chef to confirm their food allergy training and safety protocols in order to determine what is safe to eat. This is also to gauge the staff’s knowledge and our comfort level, even if we will not be dining for another month. We may then call again, closer to the dine-in date, to confirm any changes. We may even visit the restaurant, sans-allergic child, to review the experience and gain a level of comfort.
- We call food manufacturers if our food allergic child would like to try a new packaged food. Speaking to a live representative allows us to gauge their knowledge of the product’s safety and to ask any follow-up questions, like if there are any concerns for cross contact.
The above is just a small example of life managing a child with food allergies. As our food-allergic children grow, they will eventually take over responsibilities. However, as you can see, it can be overwhelming. So when things do not go as planned, both the food-allergic child and parent can feel anxious and overwhelmed because we put so much effort into living our normal life.
LL: What are some talking points you would advise for a parent needing to discuss allergy concerns with their teachers and school administrators?
TG: It will be difficult to cover everything a parent will need to discuss. However, I’ll list the most common discussion points.
- Review the Emergency Allergy Action Plan: Discuss who will have a copy of this plan, including substitutes. Remember, it is a “Response Plan” for after a reaction has already taken place. You will still need a “Prevention Plan,” the Individualized Health Care Plan (IHCP), and if you so choose, a 504 Plan.
- Epinephrine Auto-Injector Location: Where will the spare epinephrine auto-injectors be stored (unlocked location), or can a spare set shadow your child in an emergency bag by a trained staff?
- Self-Carry Medication: Can your child self-carry the epinephrine auto-injector? This may be something you should determine prior to discussions with the school. This same question applies for other medication, i.e. asthma inhaler. Note: In the state of Virginia, students may self-carry both the epinephrine auto-injector and an asthma inhaler.
- Snack Time: Where will snacks be eaten? Can snacks be limited to a designated area outside the classroom environment? Review a snack list of safe foods.
- School Supplies: At the start of the school year, several schools may request a list of donated items like a box of tissues, hand wipes, etc. Note that some of these items may contain allergens. Discuss the option of staff swapping out the unsafe products with safe ones. Other products that may include allergens are art supplies, like tempura paint, and hand soaps.
- Field Trips: Discuss the location of the field trip to be sure your child can attend safely. Some parents find it useful to receive information about the field trip early in the planning process so that they can determine any concerns of allergen exposure. Additionally, discuss the school’s experiences with cell phone connectivity as well as emergency medical services (response time, ability to reach the location, etc.).
- Cafeteria: Will your child eat the cafeteria food? Will your child be able to eat the cafeteria food? Depending on your child’s allergies, you may request a meeting with School Nutrition Services and discuss safe options for your child. Additionally, you may opt to have your child’s board certified allergist or physician complete the Physician’s Statement for Students with Special Dietary Needs form.
- School Bus: If your child will ride the bus to school, the bus driver must be trained on recognizing an allergic reaction, how to treat an allergic reaction, and the emergency response to the allergic reaction. Ask how often bus drivers receive this training and when they receive notice of a student with a food allergy. A firm, “no eating on the bus” policy must be communicated, unless for a student with a documented medical necessity. If this is the case, discuss the best way to manage the safety of each student.
If your family faces the challenges that severe food allergies present, online learning may be a less stressful alternative. An online learning environment is more controlled while ensuring equality of learning for your student. Visit k12.com to see what options are available in your local area.