Our allergy support group took on the local school board over the issue of 10- and 11-year-old student volunteers supervising children while they were eating. Good news: we carried the day, and our children head back to school this year with vastly improved meal supervision. Allergic Living asked me to share our group’s story, since it’s instructive for others.
My family lives in Ottawa, where the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) has been using Grade 5 and 6 students to supervise children during snack and meal breaks for the past few years. This included children at risk of anaphylaxis. The practice was undertaken for efficiency – because teachers didn’t have enough time outside of classroom duties to supervise all the children at lunch. In the OCDSB most students eat lunch with their class in their classroom instead of a common lunchroom.
The system worked like this: in each classroom two student monitors would watch over students in Grades 1 through 6 while they ate. One adult (teacher or staff member) would rotate through four classrooms over the course of a 25 minute meal break.
The duties of the monitors came to light after a couple of situations in which they’d overstepped their bounds. (The OCDSB hadn’t set out the limits of their responsibilities. In one case a girl with allergies was disciplined by putting her out in the hallway to eat alone – without her EpiPen.
This created a stressful situation for parents of children with anaphylaxis like my wife and I as well as fellow members of the Ottawa Anaphylaxis Support Group (OASG). Our younger daughter (Taya) is allergic to peanuts, nuts, sesame, kiwi and soy. While our allergist has stressed that it’s critical to ensure that epinephrine is given promptly in a reaction, it was hard to see how that could be achieved when the student lunch monitors hadn’t been given any emergency training, and certainly hadn’t been taught how to recognize an anaphylactic reaction or what to do in an anaphylactic emergency.
Had the lunch monitors’ parents been aware, they might have wondered about the level of responsibility being put on the shoulders of kids who are mostly 10 and 11 years old – not even old enough to baby-sit.
Two years ago, a group of us from the OASG presented our concerns to several of the trustees at a meeting organized to discuss anaphylaxis policy, but nothing was done. Then last year, we found out that the school board was reviewing the policy for children with life-threatening medical conditions.
A group of us from the support group prepared a 20-page presentation for the school board staff in charge of the review to explain our concerns. After that meeting, we realized there were too many problems to solve all at once so we prioritized the changes we felt were most critical.
We focused on three key areas: ensuring that children with anaphylaxis were supervised by an adult while they were eating; accommodating the allergic children inclusively, so they were not put in a room away from their friends at lunch; and requiring teachers to get parental permission before giving food to anaphylactic children.
After many meetings and support from several sympathetic school board trustees, the policy for students with life threatening medical conditions was amended to include all three of our key recommendations. See the sidebar for the new section of the policy and a link to the complete policy.
We are extremely pleased with the changes; however we’re aware that the devil is in the implementation details at the schools. While the new policy has been communicated to the school principals, it is now up to the principals to find a combination of teachers, casual workers and volunteers to ensure that anaphylactic children are properly supervised.
If you have concerns about the lunchtime supervision at your school, speak to other allergic parents and your trustee. Once they were made aware of the issues, the trustees proved sympathetic to the needs of the children with serious food allergies, and pressed for a workable solution. Never sell short that others without allergies are still people who can imagine what it is to stand in your shoes. It is possible to win changes, but it does take work, and organization.