Just days before the start of the 2017-18 school year, the Merrick School District introduced a new health policy regulating the food students can bring into the classrooms.
A letter explaining the policy, which aims to protect students with life-threatening food allergies, was sent to district parents in July. After it was challenged by parents at an Aug. 29 Board of Education meeting, however, the policy was amended.
“I do applaud the Board of Education for having that meeting and listening to the community,” said Lori Belbol, a past PTA president at Levy Lakeside Elementary School. “[But] my son has several life-threatening allergies, and I am not in favor of the changes.”
Under the original mandate, students could no longer bring food into the classroom if it contained peanuts, tree nuts, soy, chickpeas, sesame, cheese, milk or yogurt. All snacks had to be pre-packaged, with a list of ingredients, and students were not allowed to bring in food to celebrate their birthday, or holidays.
The updates were sent in a letter to parents after last month’s board meeting, and applied a more targeted approach: If a student has an allergy, all of his or her classmates are forbidden from bringing a snack containing that allergen. Students must bring only pre-packaged food to the classroom, but are allowed to bring in food for celebrations as long as it is commercially prepared and contains a list of ingredients. Again, if a student in that class has an allergy, the shared snack must not contain that allergen.
“The idea that this policy is removing allergens from this classroom provides a false sense of security for him,” Belbol said of her fourth-grade son Joseph, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame and shellfish. “He needs to know that nowhere is safe,” she said.
“It’s not the best policy,” Superintendent Dominick Palma said. “It’s the current step.”
Palma added that the district has already developed policies that create a safer environment for students with allergies, such as teaching staff members how to recognize the signs of anaphylaxis and treat it with epinephrine. The school has EpiPens in all its major eating spaces, the nurse’s office and in all its automated external defibrillator kits.
“There are still cases, everywhere, where children die of food allergies,” Palma said. “We thought it was important to take this, one more step, to make [students] safe.”
Alyssa Kussin, who has a child starting second grade at
Levy Lakeside, said that she understands the reason for the policy, but thought it was enacted with no community input. “There’s got to be a better and a fair and more realistic way to do [this],” Kussin said, “and they need the input of everyone involved.”
In October 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the nation’s first list of guidelines for school food allergy management. The CDC stressed the importance of preparing staff to deal with allergic reactions, teaching staff and students on food allergies and creating a safe atmosphere for students with allergies. The CDC warned, however, that banning certain foods does not always guarantee safety.
Alternatives to such restrictions include securing allergen-safe zones, which, according to Palma, the Merrick district uses during lunchtime. Students are free to bring in any kind of food, and students with allergies sit at designated sections of the cafeteria.
Palma said, however, that safe zones would not work in the classroom, where students often eat snacks during lessons and it would disrupt learning to pull a student away from his or her desk. Further, he said, “when you take the three kids with allergies, it’s fairly ostracizing.”
The policy is subject to change as the Board of Education finds more effective ways to ensure safety, according to Palma. Belbol suggested that the district handle students’ allergies on a case-by-case basis instead of enacting restrictions across the board.
“If a family thinks something is unsafe, they should talk to the school,” she said. “I wish they would make accommodations and not restrictions.”