Connor Burke has had to avoid eating nuts and legumes since he was 2 years old. If he doesn’t, he may have an allergic reaction so severe that he stops breathing.
Now in kindergarten at Bell Graham Elementary School in St. Charles, Connor has an epinephrine pen and Benadryl at school just in case he comes into contact with an allergen in the lunch room or classroom. Avoiding an allergic reaction takes the support of teachers, school nurses and lunch room aides, said his mother, Ann-Marie Burke.
“It’s interesting because through the years, peanut allergies have increased, and there’s been an increase in food allergies,” she said. “The good thing is the school district has adapted to that, changed their policy and made it more accommodating.”
Dr. Sakina Bajowala from Kaneland Allergy and Asthma Center in North Aurora said there has been an uptick in people diagnosed with allergies. She said with that comes an increased awareness of how allergies affect people’s lives.
“In the past, people used to think of food allergies as a nuisance and not life-threatening,” she said. “Now that’s changing.”
She said until parents see their children in respiratory distress, with a swollen face or covered in hives, it’s difficult to imagine the daily fear parents have when sending children with allergies to school with people they don’t know well.
“Those families really do depend on neighbors and community members to take into account the risks that their child goes through to get an education,” she said. “It can be difficult for people not in that situation to really understand.”
She has worked with Kaneland School District 302 to implement practices for using epinephrine pens. Since 2011, schools have been allowed to keep epinephrine pens to use in anaphylactic emergencies, such as a child having an allergic reaction for the first time. Before, school officials could administer epinephrine to only students who had a known allergy and were prescribed the drug.
Bajowala said 25 percent of first-time allergic reactions happen at school. And keeping track of students with known allergies takes a village, said Barb Giese, certified school nurse at Kaneland High School and head school nurse for District 302.
At Kaneland, almost all departments have access to a digital database of students who have allergies, Giese said.
“There are more and more students every year that have allergies,” she said. “I’ve read the research that states that, too.”
She said 977 students in the district have known allergies, which totals a little more than 20 percent of the student population. Some of the most common food allergies include almonds, peanuts and strawberries, but students are allergic to non-food items such as latex and bee stings.
For students who have peanut allergies, Giese said there are classrooms and tables in the cafeteria that are “peanut free.” When students go on field trips, teachers are given a review of which children have allergies. All employees complete mandated training that includes an allergy program review.
Laura Garland, principal at John Stewart Elementary in Elburn, said students used to be allergic primarily to peanuts or milk, but she’s seeing more students who are allergic to dairy, soy and gluten. She said students are not allowed to bring food in for birthdays.
Lunch room monitors are aware of who has allergies, and she said they check lunch boxes if students want to sit at a peanut-free table with their friends.
“We’re respecting students without allergies and balancing that with making sure we’re maintaining the safety of a student with allergies,” Garland said. “We communicate very openly with staff about any student who has an allergy. ... There’s no sharing of food – that’s our No. 1 rule.”
Kathy Litts, general manager of food services for the St. Charles School District 303, said when students with allergies want to participate in hot lunch, the staff scans the nutrition label off the box and emails it to parents so they can see whether it’s safe to eat. She said all food services are peanut-free.
Bajowala said one of the challenges for schools is to make sure employees are aware of the risks faced by students with allergies, but not to overreach with any special accommodations for them. She said snacks in the classroom, especially when used as a reward, can be a sticking point for parents because that sometimes can isolate children.
“When we use food as a reward, you unnecessarily isolate a child,” she said. “There are so many non-food incentives that it’s become unnecessary in this day and age.”
Burke said there’s always a level of concern about her son coming into contact with something to which he’s allergic. She said her son is his best advocate when it comes to avoiding allergens because he knows to ask before eating something he’s never tried before. She said the District 303 has a very good system in place for making sure every child can safely enjoy classroom treats and school lunches.
“They’re very accommodating. It’s their No. 1 priority,” she said. “It’s a really reassuring thing to parents.”