Managing Milk Allergy in Canadian Schools

in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: August 21, 2014
Danielle Stewart_Disney 005Danielle Stewart and Olivia, who has a milk allergy.

“They just don’t get milk allergy,” laments Danielle Stewart of Ottawa, whose 6-year-old daughter Olivia has multiple food allergies, including dairy. “Nobody thinks that you can be as severely allergic to milk as you can to peanuts.”

Dairy is typically regarded as something children need. Keeping peanuts and even tree nuts at home is relatively easy to manage, but ask parents to add dairy to the no-fly list and it could be perceived as an affront to their child’s well-being.

This remains the case despite the fact that Canada’s Food Guide only recommends two servings per day of milk for children aged 8 and under. This means kids without the allergy could get all the dairy they need simply by drinking a glass of milk in the morning and a second one after school.

But in this complex and emotionally charged landscape, most parents of dairy-allergic children don’t think a so-called “food ban” is viable, or even desirable. “I know how hard it is for me to pack a lunch for my daughter – I wouldn’t want to wish that on anybody else,” says von Dehn. So the question becomes, how can we straddle the line between keeping students with dairy allergies safe, and not asking too much of the community?

In Ontario, one school board faced great howls of protest in 2012 after taking the route of restriction and telling parents that neither dairy nor egg products were allowed in two kindergarten classes at one of its schools. But Glover’s human rights complaint has nothing to do with trying to make her school or even Elodie’s classroom a dairy-free zone.

“I’ve never used the word ‘ban’, I’ve never put forth any demands,” she says. “This comes down to being denied an accommodation plan, to actually plan out what would be appropriate. We’ve just been winging it all along.”

In this family’s case, that’s the biggest issue – Elodie has an anaphylaxis plan at her school, but it simply says she has food allergies and exercise-induced asthma, and maps out the emergency steps to take if she begins having symptoms. There are no provisions to reduce risk of exposures to her allergens in order to prevent a reaction from occurring.

Yet Sabrina’s Law, which Ontario passed in 2005 following the death of 13-year-old Sabrina Shannon (from a cafeteria exposure to dairy), requires school boards to establish an anaphylaxis policy that includes “strategies that reduce the risk of exposure to anaphylactic causative agents”. In keeping with the law, the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic board’s policy states that schools must implement such risk-reducing measures, but it doesn’t specify exactly what these must be. There is clearly grey area here.

“Sabrina’s Law doesn’t get into those kind of details about how you do something – there are so many variables,” says Laurie Harada, executive director of Anaphylaxis Canada, who stresses that risk-reduction measures are an essential part of any anaphylaxis plan. “The best strategies come with input from the whole community.”

Each case has to be custom fit: parents must work with their schools to develop strategies that keep allergy risks in perspective but also will be workable. Harada says these could include asking fellow parents to leave the more “spillable” dairy products at home, extra supervision during mealtimes, a separate eating area, classroom policies around food sharing and hand washing, and more. It depends on the individual student, the student’s needs, the school community and the physical school setting.

It’s important to realize that many parents do, in fact, successfully send their dairy-allergic children to school. This takes a combination of good planning, cool-headed communication, receptiveness from the school and continuing vigilance.

When a dairy-allergic child’s school enrolment looms, the first thing that parents should do is meet with the principal and teacher, well before the start of the school year. Bring a letter from an allergist that confirms the allergy’s severity and the importance of avoidance. Make sure the school has a formal written anaphylaxis plan for the child. Aside from including what to do in case of emergency, press to have risk-reducing measures included. This is crucial: if the plan states little more than “if there is a reaction, inject epinephrine”, then it’s not good enough.

If the province has a law or guidelines surrounding anaphylaxis in schools, bringing a hard copy to the meeting can be empowering. One parent explained how things changed dramatically after she brought in a copy of the province’s guidelines about anaphylaxis in schools. The school administration changed its tune on accommodations.

Next: Working with school staff to accommodate dairy allergy