Every morning at Hollis Primary School, Ellen Lencsak, RN, visits “nut-safe classrooms” to check lunch boxes that students have brought to school. If she finds any food that has peanuts or tree nuts in it, or is processed in a facility that uses nuts of any kind, it is sent home and the school provides an alternative lunch or snack.
“Nut-safe rooms and lunch tables are an extra safety measure to protect young students with nut allergies, but our goal is to teach these kids how to manage food allergies on their own,” she says.
Lencsak has served as school nurse at the Hollis, N.H., school, which covers preschool through third grade, for the last 18 years. A volunteer Anaphylaxis Community Expert (ACE) for Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics (AANMA) and an Epinephrine Resource School Nurse (ERSN) for the National Association of School Nurses in New Hampshire, Lencsak worries that nut-safe classrooms provide a false sense of security.
“It’s not a guarantee – a child can be exposed to an allergen at any time,” she says. “It may make sense for very young children, who sometimes take things from each other without question. But as children grow, they need to learn how to keep themselves safe wherever they are. What happens when they are offered food at a friend’s house or they want to buy something at a concession stand?”
Instead of banning foods, Lencsak believes there’s another way to manage food allergies in schools – one that empowers students and helps them develop self-management skills. Education, appropriately enough, is the answer.
As part of her health curriculum at Hollis Primary School, Lencsak teaches students about food allergies and helps raise awareness of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction. The lesson plan includes how to read food labels and identify potential allergens.
“Even at a very young age, kids can start to learn what they need to do to keep themselves healthy and safe,” she says. “Ultimately, I want them to be independent, able to advocate for themselves, and proud that they can do it!”
The school requires parents to submit Allergy Action Plans and
recommends that students with severe allergies carry or have access to
epinephrine auto-injectors. “Making sure they have epinephrine on hand is critical as it’s the only effective treatment for anaphylaxis,” Lencsak says. The school also maintains an emergency supply of epinephrine auto-injectors, and each year staff is trained how to use them.
School protocol advises students not to share foods. During times when foods are brought in for birthdays or other celebrations, Lencsak checks those foods before they are brought into the classroom.
When third-graders with food allergies prepare to transition to fourth grade at Hollis Upper Elementary School, Lencsak talks to their parents about food allergy management. She reemphasizes the need for students at risk for anaphylaxis to have epinephrine auto-injectors on hand.
Lencsak also talks about the kids’ needs.
“At that age, kids don’t want to sit at a nut-safe lunch table, they want to be with their friends,” she says. “They want to be like everyone else. Why not give them the skills they need to manage food allergies on their own so they can do everything other kids do?”
By Gary Fitzgerald
Anaphylaxis Community Experts (ACE) is a national, award-winning education, advocacy and outreach partnership program developed and hosted by AANMA in partnership with the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, sponsored by Mylan Specialty L.P.
Reviewed by Andrea Holka