Jeannine Markandeya doesn’t think she’s asking a lot when she sends her son off to school each morning. The Chandler woman wants him to learn, make friends and be safe.
But because he has severe food allergies, she worries about the risks involved with sending him out the door.
“My son is very quiet,” she said. “If he were having an allergic reaction he would not be going 'I need help, I need help.’ His reactions happen at such a fast pace. I want people to recognize his reaction and respond by getting help.”
Markandeya and other East Valley parents in the Phoenix Food Allergy Network have been involved in advocating for better guidelines in schools to ensure that staff and students know how to interact with students with food allergies.
As estimated 2.2 million children in the U.S. have some form of food allergy and the numbers continue to rise according to doctors, who aren’t sure of the cause. They say children being exposed to allergens at earlier ages is one possibility.
Last year, state Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Chandler, sponsored a bill, with support from the Phoenix Food Allergy Network, that would require school districts and charter schools to develop guidelines for managing severe food allergies. It included training educators to administer a small shot of epinephrine that can reverse a life-threatening reaction. Districts that did not comply would see up to 10 percent of their state funding withheld.
The bill failed but that did not deter the network from seeking a solution to protect the children’s health.
The group turned to state agencies such as the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona Department of Health Services and published a book of guidelines available to all schools about how to communicate with parents and develop plans for each child’s food allergy.
School nurses have been using the booklet in their training in conferences and this fall schools will begin implementing guidelines from it.
“I think it’s fabulous,” Markandeya said. “It’s such a hot topic right now. So many students are getting diagnosed, which means there is a growing number of food allergic students in schools and we need to know how to treat them.”
According to the Department of Health Services, there are eight foods − peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish − that account for 90 percent of all food allergies.
Nationally, the subject of how to treat food allergies in schools also is becoming a subject of interest.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D- Conn., who has personal experience because his daughter has food allergies and is a known supporter of food allergy awareness, is the author of Senate Bill 1232, known as the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Management Act of 2008. Companion legislation, championed by Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., was passed by the House of Representatives on April 8.
The act calls for voluntary, national guidelines to help schools safely manage students with food allergies. It would address issues such as reducing the risk of exposure to food allergens in school and ensuring that schools can promptly respond to a child experiencing a potentially fatal anaphylactic reaction. The legislation also calls for $30 million in grants to help schools implement the voluntary national guidelines.
Schools around the East Valley have their own plans and guidelines in place for dealing with students with food allergies.
In the Mesa Unified School District, spokeswoman Kathy Bareiss said the schools aim to work with the nurses or health aides and parents to come up with individual plans for each student.
An Individual Health Care Plan is what most schools use. It’s a document that tells the school what to do to accommodate the individual needs of a child with a life-threatening allergy. Included would be an Emergency Action Plan that details what steps must taken in the event of an emergency.
The two documents together form a 504 Plan, which is a legal document providing assurances for parents about the necessary steps the school will take to help prevent an allergic reaction and what steps the school will take in the event of a specific emergency.
The district also passed a policy recently that allows students who are capable to carry their own epinephrine pens to administer the drug if exposed to an allergen.
Bareiss said disclosure of the food allergy is up to the parents, so if they don’t tell the school, there is little the nurses can do.
Markandeya said her group is hoping that by working with schools and parents and fostering more open communication, schools can become safer places for children with food allergies.
“We’re hoping, with the guidelines available, more schools will be adopting them and that will help,” she said. “It will be a year of adjustment. All we want to say is that if you move from Tucson to Flagstaff you should have a continuity of care. We’re hoping for widespread acceptance, awareness and sensitivity. Yes, we want preventative care, and we believe that can be done without being obstructive of the education process.”