A public school in Florida has gained national attention this week because some parents want a first grader removed from the classroom and home-schooled because she has a life-threatening peanut allergy.
These particular parents would rather not deal with a child’s allergy than have their own children follow the school’s instructions to wash their hands before entering the classroom in the morning and after they eat lunch, and rinse out their mouths.
A spokeswoman for the school said that “the 6-year-old's peanut allergy is so severe it is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act” according to MSNBC. In addition, she noted that despite the parental requests, excluding the child from the school isn’t even an option as they are “required by federal law to provide accommodations.”
At the time of publication, the poll at the bottom of the MSNBC article shows that almost 70,000 votes have been cast with an opinion on this issue: is it too disruptive for the rest of the class? The results: 54 percent voted that “Yes. An allergy that severe is too disruptive for the rest of the class.” Meanwhile, 24 percent voted that “No. Federal law requires that she be allowed in school.” Another 24 percent voted “Not sure. It would benefit all the students if some compromise could be worked out.”
These are only issues of simple hygiene. As one voter commented, “The complaining parents need to get over themselves. It's hardly a big sacrifice for kids to wash their hands a couple of times a day.” Shouldn’t they be doing that anyway?
A number of my daughter’s friends here in Howard County have food allergies, so I asked a couple of their parents their thoughts on this issue.
Susan Hubbard’s 4- and 5-year-old girls both have peanut allergies. “I do think that we are very fortunate to go to a school that insists on a nut-free environment. I don't believe in special accommodations being made for my girls, but life is much easier for us because SJPDS has done all the work for us. If I had to constantly wonder about who my kids were sitting next to at lunch and what everyone was eating, I'd be a nervous wreck!”
However, she also points out that allergy education should begin at home. If her girls truly understand what eating nuts could do to them, it's probable that they would be fine at a school that isn’t nut-free.
The problem at public schools, or schools without a strict nut-free policy, is accidental exposure.
At Howard County Public Schools, cafeterias have nut-free tables, and they have published “Guidelines for the Management of Students with Severe Food Allergies” on their website.
The guidelines are extensive, noting Maryland State Law as well as nine points of school responsibility, 14 points of parental responsibility, 10 points of responsibility belonging to the school nurse, 4 to the student, 10 administrator responsibilities, 9 teacher responsibilities, 5 bus driver responsibilities and many additional resources. The entire document can be read here.
Of particular note are the goals to:
• assure staff awareness of students with severe food allergy in the school;
• assure staff awareness of the seriousness of food allergy;
• minimize the potential for exposure of food allergic students to the food allergen;
• assure staff awareness of the signs and symptoms of a severe allergic reaction;
• provide prompt and effective intervention in the event of an allergic reaction;
• minimize the adverse educational effects of food allergy on the affected students and their classmates.
(Taken from the Guidelines document.)
"I'm thankful for the awareness and precautions that the Howard County Public School system takes in handling our children's food allergies,” says Catherina Lyu, whose children have a variety of food allergies and attend public school in Ellicott City.
“Although our children do not have severe allergies [they] still require special precautionary measures…teachers, assistants, school nurse, and the Food and Nutrition Services have demonstrated knowledge of and willingness to aid in needed measures. I've received several phone calls from teachers and assistants making sure that I was aware of menu changes and class celebrations involving food. I also appreciate the school nurse who keeps informed with any changes and helps and the web page from the Food and Nutrition Services is informative with the ingredients of each menu item. Classes are now restricted on what is allowed to be brought in as food items to share in an effort to minimize allergy interactions."
What do you think the right approach is? Are these Florida parents out of line or on target? Do our own local schools find the right mix of freedom and precaution?