For Vincent Hooper, a fourth-grade student, a simple brownie or cookie offered by a classmate at lunch or snack time could pose a risk of anaphylaxis reaction, causing an itchy rash or in the worst case - throat swelling.
His mother, Adina Johnson, said Vincent is allergic to cashews, pistachios, hazelnuts, as well as birch and alder pollen and cats.
“He reacted to pistachios when he was 2 (years old) after eating them,” she said.
She said the doctor said his reaction was acute, suggesting that he had been exposed before, possibly in breast milk, and went ahead with testing that concluded pistachio and other tree nut allergies.
“He will react just being around the nuts – (He breaks out in) itchy, red blotches, mainly on his neck, face and arms,” she said.
Vincent is one of 95 students, in 26 schools, across the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District that have been identified with nut allergies, peanut and tree nuts are the most common.
Pegge Erkeneff, Communications Specialist with KPBSD, said keeping parents and students informed is key.
“When a severe food allergy occurs, the school attempts to provide a safe area for the child where risk is reduced. We can never prevent risk, as anyone could have peanuts, but we hope to minimize that risk through education,” she said.
Dean Hamburg, KPBSD Student Nutrition Services Administrator, said it is the United States Department of Agriculture that establishes the process by which accommodation to students with special diet needs are met.
“Students participating in USDA school meals programs, who have a need for an accommodation to an allergy, are required to provide documentation prescribed by a medical authority regarding the specifics of the allergy,” he said.
Erkeneff said the first step in keeping parents aware is sending home a note, or information in a newsletter, suggesting which products should not be sent to the school for classroom snacks. She explained that in some cases, the at risk students does not seem bothered in the larger lunch room setting and everyone can bring a peanut butter sandwich if desired.
Although, for life threatening allergies, and with parent permission, KPBSD lets the lunchroom staff know which students have allergies to food.
“So that we can minimize serving anything containing the allergen to the specific student affected,” she said. “We also provide a zone in the classroom which is peanut or tree nut free, and do the same in the cafeteria.”
She said students who want to eat lunch in that area are welcomed, so that the students with allergies do not feel isolated.
Johnson said the handling of Vincent’s allergy by KPBSD has exceeded her expectations.
“Our experience with the current school has been amazing. The school (nurse) is on top of his allergies, and we have developed a great relationship,” she said.
Another reminder to students and parents of Vincent’s allergies are signs posted outside the door to remind those entering that peanuts and tree nuts are not permitted. Another student in class has a peanut allergy as well.
“There are signs identifying the classroom as being a tree nut free zone,” Johnson said. “It has been mentioned in two class newsletters thus far and I am going to be reminding the RN that the majority of European chocolates contain hazelnuts and have it addressed to the kids, parents and teachers.”
Naomi Walsworth, RN and KPBSD Health Services Coordinator, said it is very important for parents and students to be aware of allergy issues in the classroom.
“When snacks come in from home, they are shared with everyone, and students need to know whether they are safe for them to eat. Parents who are aware of the allergy need may be able to send in snacks for them to use that do not contain the allergens, or to provide a list of ingredients if unsure,” she said. “Students who know another child may have a severe allergic reaction to certain food or ingredient will very often help protect that child and minimize exposure by asking questions and reminding him or her not to eat it.”
Johnson said some issues have come up in class, but the school has done a great job keeping her child safe.
“Last week, Vincent was ‘left out’ when the class was given brownies containing walnuts - again the RN was vigilant and brought this to the teachers attention. A lot of tree nuts have the same genetic makeup, and we avoid them all rather than risk his health by testing with ingestion,” she said.
Johnson said she transferred her children from another school district within the state last spring. She has found KPBSD to be attentive to her son’s allergies, more so than other schools have been.
“He attended three different schools in that district and only the last one was relatively close to being as attentive to his allergies as his current school with KPBSD,” she said.
Sara J. Hardan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org