Karen Eck with her son, who has dairy allergies.
A lot of what happens next depends on the individual teacher. Some ‘get’ food allergies better than others. “You hit the jackpot when you get a teacher whose child has allergies,” Karen Eck, leader of the Ottawa Anaphylaxis Support Group, says wryly. Conversely, it should be remembered that not every educator has had direct experience with food allergies. It’s wise to counter knowledge gaps with patience and education, not frustration and anger.
“Even in kindergarten, a dairy allergy can be managed,” says Isabelle Mercier, a teacher at Meadowlands Public School in Ottawa. Mercier begins the year by teaching the class about the allergy, what foods can cause a reaction, and what can happen during a reaction. She teaches kids to use straws and partially close containers of milk to reduce spilling.
If a spill occurs, the kids are to stop what they’re doing and get Mercier right away – only she is allowed to clean it up. “The same rule applied to yogurt and cheese,” she says.
At Simon Fraser Elementary in Vancouver, principal Bonnie Kent ensures that allergy information is sent home to parents of kids who share a class with a food-allergic child. Risk-reducing strategies include individual placemats, food allergy education for the children and strict policies on hand washing after eating and no sharing of food. Eating is restricted to certain areas where proper clean-up is ensured. For the younger children, a support worker is present whenever food is in the class to help ensure there is no accidental contact.
If your school is short on teaching assistants, see if one who is present for another child can be permitted to keep an eye on both children when food is being eaten.
The teacher may also be willing to e-mail a list of ingredients to parents of milk-allergic children ahead of time whenever food is to be in the class. If anything looks unsafe, parents can suggest alternatives. In a similar vein, many allergy mothers send in a “safe treats box” or bake and freeze “emergency cupcakes” for unexpected food situations, so their child is never excluded. One parent group even succeeded in getting their school to require signed permission forms for food-related events.
The cornerstone of successfully managing this allergy is clearly communication. And it’s important to communicate the right way. Playing the role of the “hysterical parent” could make things worse – either by making school officials dismiss the concerns, or by scaring them into thinking the allergy is unmanageable. Go in prepared, and know the steps that you want to accomplish. It may help to relate if son or daughter has had an anaphylactic reaction and been to hospital, but then move forward with ideas to help the school accommodate and include your child.
“It becomes a delicate balance between keeping your child safe and having a positive presence in the community,” says Eck. “If you show up and you’re just a freaked out parent, they think you’re over-reacting.” That’s why she stresses it’s important to communicate calmly. “You have to learn when to kick up a fuss and get involved, and when to just breathe through the nose and relax. Even if you are freaking out, try to present yourself with calm to the rest of the world. Go in assuming that they’re going to help you find solutions.”
Glover is now close to reaching a partial agreement with the school board that may allow Elodie to return to school this autumn, but there are still some issues to work out that will be going to a hearing. Whatever the result, there will be implications for food allergy management in schools in Ontario, and perhaps across Canada.
Meanwhile, Elodie will remain at home. Her mother says she is doing very well, and is “a tough little girl, that’s for sure.” But the child still misses her friends, and let’s face it: being schooled from home because of food allergies isn’t anyone’s idea of a fair solution.
All children deserve to attend school in a safe, inclusive fashion, whether they are in perfect health or live with diabetes, asthma, a physical disability – or a severe milk allergy. Communication is the king of answers when dealing with such a condition: if school boards, principals, staff, parents of allergic kids and the school community at large are willing to work together to make it happen, then a dairy allergy should be a manageable challenge.
Update: Lynne Glover was able to reach an accommodations plan with the Hamilton school and district in September 2014. Elodie has returned to school. See here for details.