Recent legislation signed into law in Washington is designed for school districts like Gwinnett County Public Schools to review their policies about food allergies and stocking Epinephrine.
Ten years ago, when one of Kathleen Sheerin’s patients, a kindergartener with a food allergy, moved to Gwinnett, the patient’s mother worried about how the school would respond to any allergic reaction.
Now Sheerin, a doctor who specializes in pediatric allergies with the Atlanta Allergy and Asthma Clinic, which has three offices in Gwinnett, said the way Gwinnett County Public Schools handles food allergies is “night and day.”
“They’re doing a better job, and this document might help them do a better,” Sheerin said.
The document Sheerin referred to is part of The School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act, which went into law earlier this month, and is designed to encourage schools, through incentives, to increase the availability of epinephrine in schools. Also recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published “Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies In Schools and Early Care and Education Programs,” a 90-page document that officials called the first ever comprehensive national guidelines for school food allergy management.
“It’s a document that parents, school teachers, administrators, physicians can use in order to make life in the schools as safe as possible for kids with a food allergy,” said Sheerin, who has trained nurses in Gwinnett schools.
There’s no requirement, but it states that schools must have an action plan if there’s a food allergy emergency. Georgia is not among the four states — Virginia, Maryland, Nebraska and Nevada — that require schools to stock Epinephrine, or among the 30 states that have either introduced or are very close to introducing legislation allowing schools to stock undesignated Epinephrine auto-injectors, according to Food Allergy Research and Education advocacy group.
None of the 26 education-related proposed bills in the upcoming General Assembly session involve food allergies.
FARE is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that was formed in 2012 as the result of a merger between the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network and the Food Allergy Initiative.
GCPS spokesman Jorge Quintana said the district does not stock EpiPens, but it complies with applicable legislation for students with allergies and other health conditions such as asthma. Students have the option of carrying their own EpiPens with permission from their parents and doctors.
Administrators, classroom, cafeteria, bus and support staff are trained by district nurses about working with students with allergies in prevention of exposure and recognition and treatment of symptoms of allergic reactions, Quintana said.
Nurses develop individual allergy emergency and asthma management plans after they collaborate with students’ parents and heath care providers. School cafeterias also have allergy-free areas, special cleaning procedures and a system for flagging students with food allergies and ways to avoid contamination of food with potential allergens such as nuts.
Sheerin said incidents of peanut allergy has doubled in the past 20 years, and kids also have other allergies, such as pine nuts, shell fish, egg, milk and soy. Her son developed a peanuty allergy when he was 8 years old, and was in a peanut-free classroom, but not a nut-free classroom.
Those incidents have caused teachers to review their students and projects like a bird feeder made with rice cakes, peanut butter and bird seed, Sheerin said.
Because there are many unknowns, including when a child is diagnosed, or if they will outgrow an allergy, Sheerin said the recent legislation and publicity is a way to extend a dialogue, but children must also take responsibility.
“We live in the real world, they have to learn to read labels and ask,” she said. “You’re not going to go to a business lunch and expect it to be peanut free.”
The law provides a financial incentive for states that require schools to maintain a supply of the medication and permit trained school personnel to administer it to get preference for receiving federal children’s asthma-treatment grants.
Sheerin said Epinephrine should be handled in a similar way as defibrillators. The side effects are also minimal in the way that defibrillators can’t be shocked unless a heart is out of rhythm, EpiPens will only make children “a little jittery” Sheerin said if they were used in a non-emergency.
For students in sixth grade and older, Sheerin said students should carry them in their backpack, while a supply for younger students should be available in the school’s clinic.