Teachers face the pressure of student allergies

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Graphic depicting a "no peanuts" sign against an orange, polka dot background.

Due to a lack of detailed government policies and a shortage of school nurses, some teachers are faced with the responsibility of caring for students with severe food allergies and illnesses. Original artwork by Aubrey Roskoskey.

Early education instructor Dayle McLeod was prepped this fall to begin her new position as Head Start’s lead teacher at Potterville Elementary School in Potterville, Mich. With six years of professional experience under her belt, she knew just how to ready her classroom for her newest batch of preschool students: Her lesson plans were organized, her classroom supplies purchased, her bulletin boards constructed. She was prepared for everything — or so she thought.

Not long before the first day of class, McLeod was informed she would be responsible for a student with maple syrup urine disease, a rare genetic disorder in which the body cannot break down certain proteins.

“At first, it was really stressful,” McLeod said. “It was my first year with Head Start, so I was taking on a new job as well as learning that I have a child that could very well die if I feed him too much protein.”

Photo of teacher Dayle McLeod working on classroom decorations at a table.

Potterville Elementary School teacher Dayle McLeod creates classroom decor for her students. Before the start of this school year, McLeod was informed she would be responsible for a young student with maple syrup urine disease, a rare genetic illness. Photo by Erica Marra.

In addition to caring for the rest of her classroom, McLeod learned she was now responsible for meticulously monitoring the student’s diet.

“For this particular child, we had to develop an emergency action plan for him as well as provide very specific meal items to ensure he’s not eating more than 15 grams of protein per day,” McLeod said. “So we have to chart everything he eats and send that chart home to his mom so she knows how much protein he can have for the rest of the day. I also speak regularly with his nutritionist who provides menu substitutions as well as advice on how to get him to eat, because he’s a rather picky eater.”

Lack of Detailed Government Allergy Policies

McLeod isn’t the only educator responsible for monitoring students with food illnesses or allergies. FARE, a national food allergy research and education organization, reports 5.9 million American children experience food allergies – nearly two in every classroom. Of those children, 40 percent have experienced a severe reaction such as anaphylaxis.

Because food allergies and illnesses typically lie on a spectrum, some students’ cases require more careful supervision than others. In 2004, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention established the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act, mandating all United States schools develop and implement local school wellness policies in an effort to “create supportive school nutrition and physical activity environments”. These wellness policies are required to meet a few minimum needs regarding food marketing and nutrition promotion, though none of the requirements pertain specifically to allergies or illnesses — that, instead, is left up to individual school districts.

Michigan’s response to the 2004 act was the publication of the Michigan State Board of Education Model Local Wellness Policy, which, similar to its parent policy, contains no specific language regarding food allergies or illnesses. Rather, the state offers guidelines for district staff to implement their own allergy policies.

School Nurse Shortages

Additionally, the lack of another educational resource, school nurses, poses issues for both food allergy and illness prone students and their educators. According to data published by the Michigan School Nurse Task Force, Michigan ranks worst in the nation in terms of  school nurse employment, with an average ratio of 4,411 students to one nurse.

Deanne Kelleher, a registered dietician nutritionist and instructor in MSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, explained this lack of school nurses in Michigan schools can place more medical responsibility on teachers.

“Unfortunately, because so many schools lack a school nurse, you then have to teach staff to deliver lifesaving injections,” Kelleher said. “As kids get older, they have self-injecting options, though some schools in certain states have policies that you can’t have those with you at all times.”

Jenny Gallo is a self-described “homeschool mom” of four from Laingsburg, Mich. Her youngest son, Christopher, has a severe peanut allergy in addition to an anaphylactic wheat allergy and sensitivities to soy, egg and MSG. Though Gallo was confident in her decision to homeschool all of her children, she said that even if public or private school was an option for Christopher, she would “definitely not” have chosen that educational path for him based on his medical needs and maintaining her peace of mind.

“What if a young child unknowingly goes to sit at a cafeteria table with a friend, and there’s peanut butter everywhere? What if another friend thinks it’s funny and throws peanuts at kids who are allergic? I’ve heard of these situations before from other parents,” Gallo said. “Kids can be silly and they sometimes don’t get the severity of situations. I just don’t think you can always count on another child to follow those rules.”

All factors considered, Gallo said whether or not government mandated policies or school nurses are in place, students with conditions like her son’s shouldn’t have to become the burden of teachers with many other tasks on their plate.

“I think it’s really great that you can put things like food plans and policies in place, but I am personally not of the opinion that every teacher has to go to that length,” Gallo said. “I think you just need to be equipped as a parent and as a child to know how to handle these situations, because it’s not always going to fit into a plan. That’s my responsibility as a parent to protect him.”

Note: At the time this story was written, Dayle McLeod was employed as Head Start’s lead teacher at Potterville Elementary School. As of December 2017, she has left her position at Head Start and is now employed as the lead infant and toddler teacher at Gretchen’s House Child Care Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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