Schools adapt to students with peanut allergies
When Connie Lennartson, parent of a student who's new to Cottage Grove Elementary School this year, was given information at the school's open house that discouraged her from sending peanut products in her child's school lunch, she was "shocked."
Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are an elementary-school staple, she thought.
She was also given a two-page list of peanut-free food that can be sent to school for birthdays or other special occasions.
"I understand the treats," Lennartson said. "It was the individual part that bothered me."
She was surprised to learn how sensitive some children are to the everyday snack food.
Some students can have a reaction from simply inhaling or touching peanut products said district health coordinator Theresa Pines.
That's why School District 833 is making every effort short of a ban to convince parents not to send their children to school with peanut butter sandwiches or peanut products in lunches, she said.
Peanut allergy reactions range from moderate to severe for some students at Cottage Grove Elementary School. Seven have been identified as having peanut allergies and three of them have EpiPens -- or devices they can use to automatically inject themselves with epinephrine -- with them at all times.
In the case of a severe allergy, exposure can trigger constriction of the airways and other symptoms that can only be reversed by an immediate injection.
All of the 167 children in the district, who are in danger of severe reactions, carry EpiPens and have written emergency health plans that require schools to call an ambulance if their pens are used.
Liberty Ridge Elementary School has 27 students with peanut allergies, according to Pines.
On average, there are two to three incidents a year when EpiPen injections are used. Schools do not have them because they are available by prescription only. The policy requires schools to call an ambulance after an injector has been used.
For elementary school students with serious allergies, some schools offer peanut-free lunch tables that are disinfected. Public places at Cottage Grove Elementary School such as the office and art room have signs stating they are peanut-free areas.
"I don't believe in peanut-free classrooms in high schools because, by that time, students should have learned how to cope," Pines said.
But elementary-age children often share food, so education is important. After a morning kindergarten class, tables might need to be sanitized before an afternoon class. "It's very complex," she said.
Pines gives annual training to new teachers and staff members in how to use the injectors.
"Everyone in a school should know how," she said.
Angela Spoto, Next Step Transitions Program special education teacher, in a training session Sept. 5, got a refresher course in how to use the pen in a training session conducted by Pines.
Spoto knows what it's like to have a peanut reaction.
After eating a small candy bar containing peanuts in 2005, her throat immediately swelled and she found it very difficult to breathe. The swelling eased on the way to the doctor and she was later identified as having a peanut allergy.
"I always carry a pen," she said, adding that everyone who works around her has had EpiPen training.
"There are tons of things peanuts can be in," said Barb Osthus, district director of nutrition service. "There is a wide range of reactions. Some are mild and others where students could die."
Peanut allergies came to the forefront about five years ago, she said, and nutrition services has done everything it can to remove the threat from peanuts. Also, if there is milk, pork or eggs in food being served, it's posted in the cafeteria.
Peanut-free tables are sanitized between lunches.
Last year, when the district changed cookie vendors, the manufacturer was called to make sure school cookies were not mixed or baked after peanut cookies without sanitizing, Osthus said.
Linda Rull, superintendent for elementary education, said she first encountered peanut allergies when she was Royal Oaks principal.
The parent told her that her child reacts when near aisles in a grocery store containing peanuts or peanut butter.
"When the parent told me that," she said, "it put it all into perspective. I understand parents' concerns."
Parent Lennartson, said she felt the same way after learning more about peanut allergies, and will pick a different type of protein to send in her child's lunch.
"If my kid had it, I would be concerned," Lennartson said. "It's a tough situation."
Judy Spooner can be reached at email@example.com.