Parents whose children are living with life-threatening food allergies talk. They share recipes, restaurant recommendations, and tips on how to give their kids a normal, healthy childhood while also avoiding the food that could be fatal.
Ask some of these Loudoun parents who have children in school, and they’ll tell you, the county’s school system has a stellar reputation for just how well they’ve navigated the rise in food allergies among young people.
The procedural guidelines for supporting students with allergies that Loudoun County Public Schools adopted in 2009 have been held up as a national example of how to keep students with severe allergies safe while also giving them equal access to education.
Now the school system is adopting a new procedural handbook, one-third of the size and with fewer specific direction for the school staff, and it has parents concerned that it is the start of schools doing less to keep their children safe.
“When the first edition of the guidelines came out, it was known as one of the best they had ever seen in the nation,” said Thanita Glancey, chairwoman of the Loudoun Allergy Network, a volunteer organization that provides support and information about allergies. “It included issues that most don’t such as the emotional impact allergies can have on a student.”
She gave the example of a student with special educational needs. State and federal laws require schools need to make accommodations to ensure those students have equal access to education. She wants her daughter, a 14-year-old student with multiple food allergies, to receive similar treatment.
“My concern is the language that provided equal access to education and inclusive practices—much of that has been reduced or removed,” Glancey said. “As parents we try to teach our kids how to manage their food allergy. But it can be difficult and emotional for them especially if they are excluded from things that their peers get to do.”
In recent years, educators have been asked to do more to ensure the safety of a growing number of students in their classrooms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the prevalence of food allergy in children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011. Roughly one in 13 children in the U.S. have food allergies.
In Loudoun, 10.8 percent (8,880) of the county’s public school students have food allergies, and 3.4 percent (2,776) have severe enough allergies that they carry EpiPens, which inject epinephrine to reverse the symptoms caused by an allergic reaction. The school system creates an individual health care plan for each of those children that school staff is required to follow.
Nicole Cohen’s family moved to Loudoun County in 2011 because of the school system’s air-tight food allergy guidelines. “Now, sadly, I feel like the new guidelines are moving LCPS backwards when food allergies are at an all-time high.”
She said the previous guidelines had more action verbs and language that placed more responsibility on school staff.
“It’s too vague,” agreed Jennifer Reichard, whose 7-year-old son is allergic to sesame. She noted that the new handbook states the teacher “should communicate” with parents about events or lessons that could put children with food allergies at risk. “Should is a suggestion and leaves room for interpretation. The teacher must contact the parent. As a parent I must know my child is safe when he is in your hands.”
School leaders said they want parents’ feedback on the new guidelines, and made sure Glancey and other parents of students with severe allergies were a part of the committee formed to revamp the 2017-2018 handbook.
Clark Bowers, director of Student Services who oversaw the effort, said the goal of the new handbook was to streamline the message—it was condensed from 65 to 25 pages—and to take a more preventative approach to create an “allergy aware culture” in the schools.
“It had a lot of good information, but when you have a student in a crisis, you don’t need 65 pages. You need streamlined information that says here’s your responsibility and how to get help quickly,” Bowers said.
The new student allergy handbook was the result of six months’ worth of work. To tackle the task, Bowers’ office formed a committee of administrators, principals, teachers, nurses and parents. Bowers said the group met several times from February through July to decide what essentials should go in the handbook and what could be taught to teachers through training.
Jeannie Kloman, supervisor of School Health Services, said that health specialists and nurses now train teachers, with PowerPoint presentations and hands-on demonstrations, to recognize the signs of a person experiencing anaphylaxis and how to use an epinephrine auto-injector, or EpiPen.
Bowers has assured concerned parents that school staff members, from the teachers to the principals, are still asked to do everything they can to ensure students have a safe and comfortable learning environment.
“We recognize there was a concern there about whether this [new handbook] has enough quality information for staff to make sure our kids are protected. The answer is yes,” Bowers said. “Staff needs to know what to do in an emergency, how to make sure students are safe, and make sure that, as a school team, that the staff understands what the responsibilities are across the board.”
The new handbook says that caring for students with food allergies is a shared responsibility. It asks all stakeholders—school staff, parents and students—to model six practices to be “allergy aware”: maintain confidentiality, practice safety, and to be inclusive, proactive, educated, and responsible.
On that note, Bowers and Kloman say their goal is for “allergy aware” to become second nature for everyone working in every public school in Loudoun. To get there, it will take partnering with parents who know first-hand the dangers that come with their children’s food allergies.
“We want to hear from parents on this. Show us where there can be changes,” Bowers said. “We’ll continue to take that input because we ultimately all want the same thing: for the child to be safe.”