Making Our School Allergy Smart
- Our Experience
By Ken, Helena and Brandon Pope, AAIA members, Brampton, Ontario
Preparing your anaphylactic child's school for his entrance is a daunting task to say the least. My wife and I found out just how daunting when we enrolled our son Brandon in JK last year. For the first time, our child's environment was out of our control.
Brandon is anaphylactic to dairy. Over 100 on his IgE blood test. His worst allergy. What a nightmare! There isn't much on the grocery store shelf that doesn't have some form of dairy in it. He is also anaphylactic to shellfish and penicillin and is allergic to egg, peanut and fish with the environmentals thrown in to top it off. Brandon is acutely aware of his allergies and his situation posed a great challenge to him as he entered school for the first time. We knew the classroom was doubling as a lunch room and all forms of the foods he was allergic to were being brought in on a daily basis by his classmates. Cross-contamination was a huge concern and to compound the problems, Pizza, Dairy Queen and Milk day programs were and still are a part of School Council's way of pumping money into an under-funded, cash-strapped budget.
It's all about education and making people aware, a difficult task to be sure. Overcoming the indifference and apathy is tedious but paramount. We realised a compromise was needed. Obviously eliminating dairy completely from the school, although preferable, was not possible but getting food out of the classroom was possible. And eliminating or somehow changing the fund raising programs was certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Our initial attempts to inform the school and the school board and to make changes were met with much resistance. We were told to attend School Council meetings as any changes would have to go through them. As we anticipated, School Council was less than accommodating. At the first meeting, we presented our situation and asked that they put themselves in our position and realise they would do the same thing. But the changes we required were something that would upset their apple cart and they were/are still reluctant to put it mildly. It seems our pleas fell on deaf ears. Subsequent meetings saw little change and I know they just hope and wish we'll go away.
Because of all its publicity, the peanut issue was front and center. Peanuts were being kept from the classroom because a SK student with the allergy was present but other allergens did not arouse the same attention. We represented and still do, a situation they had never had to deal with and were/are uninformed about. A headache to be sure. Their experience with a child with multiple anaphylactic allergies, the worst of which was dairy, was virtually non-existent. Our situation presented them with a problem for their aforementioned fund raising programs. They said the community wanted the programs they had in place and eliminating them to accommodate one child was not an option. These programs saw a large portion of the school in participation. They also saw a fair amount of money into the school's coffers. For the obvious financial reasons, they declined to drop these days from their program. However, since Brandon was on a three day schedule, Dairy Day could be held on a day when he wasn't in attendance. On Pizza Day, we were forced to take Brandon out of school at lunch for the balance of the day because the children ate in the classroom and milk protein from the gooey cheese could conceivably be everywhere.
We told the school from the start we didn't want Brandon isolated at meal times but that's exactly what happened. The school was using "Board approved methods" which in this case meant separating Brandon from his classmates at lunch and snack times and "see what happens." Board approved methods? See what happens? During the first meeting we had with the Board, they displayed an obvious lack of knowledge on the subject. How could there be Board approved methods of any substance? We didn't think isolating him like this was good for him psychologically and he did tell us it upset him. He cried one afternoon after school. This also didn't get food out of the classroom.
Of course, the process of educating all concerned was made more difficult and lengthy by the reluctance to accommodate. Accommodation would mean work, change and money. Work, change and money they weren't anywhere near convinced was necessary. It was frustrating for us to say the least. It seemed no one understood. No one cared. We were told it took 10 gruelling years to affect changes for the peanut allergy. Ten years? We don't have 10 years. Brandon's health and life can't wait ten years. What kind of a society do we live in when the health and life of a child are left carelessly hanging by chance? Where was the legislation to ensure his safety? Everyone's asleep at the wheel! Brandon's life was reduced to pizza, milk and a few thousand dollars. That's how we felt.
Frustrated and faced with what appeared to be a dead end, we decided to go around School Council. They weren't listening. No one was listening. I wrote a letter to the School Trustee. I also wrote a letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty. I was less than complimentary to all, including the government and chastised the Board for its apathetic approach to the situation and threatened to take legal action if necessary to ensure our child's safety. I was angry to say the least.
A meeting with the Board Superintendent soon followed and we found a more sympathetic ear. He promised he would speak with colleagues and develop an action plan around recommendations and report back to us. Action is now being taken to make substantial changes. The classroom is no longer a lunchroom. Brandon's class eats in the gymnasium under supervision and precautions are taken to ensure the chance of cross-contamination is kept to a bare minimum. Brandon sits in close proximity with a couple of his buddies. Food sharing is not allowed and hand and face washing are a ritual afterward. Tables are washed down afterward as well. The milk program has been taken out of Brandon's class and Dairy Queen day is supposed to be on the way out. Pizza days are still an issue at the moment but Helena found an allergy friendly tasty alternative which is being strongly considered as a replacement. Although there are some growing pains yet, we've made some great strides and it's great to finally have the Board on board. We thank Superintendent Blackwell and Principal Sienna for their efforts now. School Council however, will need more convincing. I can still cut the obvious angst and animosity with a knife when we appear at meetings. We understand they are advocating for their children but none of their children have a condition that may see lunch kill them. Fortunately, the law is now clearly on the side of the disadvantaged, as it should be. The sad part is that it has to come to that. The recent passing of Bill 3 (Sabrina's Law) should make all or most of what we experienced a thing of the past. Public education and awareness of anaphylaxis and allergies is a tough row to hoe but it must be a goal of every one of us. Lobbying the government for more school funding is also important we feel because it is a lack of money that forces the schools into these fund raising schemes which put our anaphylactic, allergic children at risk. Please fight the indifference and apathy.
A special thanks as well to Monika Gibson of the AAIA for her support and the information sessions for school staff.
from Allergy & Asthma News, Issue 3 2005