|The front door of my son's school.|
First a big disclaimer and then a little background: my memory is far from perfect. My apologies if I manage to misrepresent my son's accommodations, simply because I gapped out a relevant section. In addition, I have not personally seen Tracey's daughter's health plan. I am going strictly on Tracey's descriptions and the information given by school officials to reporters. Plus, our children's schools are in widely separated counties with different policies.
My son's elementary school is both the one closest to our home and the only one at our end of the county with both a full time nurse and a stellar reputation for managing food allergies and other chronic health conditions. It's something of an unofficial magnet for kids with peanut allergies and diabetes. So, of course, the school district wanted to assign The Kid elsewhere when he started Kindergarten. After endless attempts by phone and online to get him reassigned, I spent the better part of a day with mountains of documentation working my way up the food chain at the county administration building to get him enrolled at his current school shortly before the school year began. (That's a story for another day, but it's amazing what can be accomplished with reasonable requests, supporting evidence and polite persistence.)
Based on the medical information we provided, the school nurse quickly banged out a health plan with relatively little input from us:
- Every person, whether student, staff or parent, entering my son's classroom must wash their hands at a sink just inside the door.
- Every student must rinse their mouth when entering the classroom first thing in the morning and immediately after lunch.
I'll be honest; I was truly startled when I saw that the nurse had included the mouth rinsing provision in the I.H.P. It seemed a little extreme, and was not something that it would have ever occurred to me to request. This is also the procedure that has sparked the most controversy in Tracey's daughter's accommodations.
Then I saw the mouth rinsing in action. There is a little water fountain on the side of the sink, and the kids are instructed to "swish and swallow" after they wash their hands. That's IT. All they are doing is taking a sip of water from a fountain. Quite frankly, it's a good idea to encourage kids to drink more water in general here in the Florida heat. I am at a loss to even understand the controversy about the hand washing, since it's just good hygiene and a basic safety measure.
As far as the time that washing hands and taking a sip of water requires, the protesters have manufactured the statistic that they are required to do this three times a day and it takes ten minutes each time, causing a total loss of thirty minutes from academics each day.
This is pure fiction. First, it is twice a day, after arriving from breakfast at home and after eating lunch at school, both for Tracey's daughter's and my son's classrooms. Second, washing up in the morning does not take away class time, since it is done upon arrival before class even starts.
As an update to Tracey's situation, it turns out that mouth rinsing was never actually in her daughter's health plan, and the school had been doing it unnecessarily. They have since switched to washing the kids' faces, but have never, ever used Clorox wipes on their hands or faces as the protesters have claimed. [Update: this change was made before the protests started.]
Originally both plans dealt with lunch in a similar way:
- At Edgewater Elementary, the students leave packed lunches on a cart outside the classroom, which is taken to the cafeteria.
- At my son's school, lunches are left on a shelf just inside the door and are picked up again on the way to lunch. (This is standard, not an accommodation.)
- Neither school bans any food, including peanuts or peanut butter.
- Both plans initially called for the child to eat separately from the other students.
This is where we asked for less restrictions than the nurse's plan prescribed. My son was very upset at being isolated from the other students at lunchtime. He felt it was a punishment for his food allergies. So we requested that he eat in the cafeteria in a designated place, which is wiped clean before he sits down. Children who are eating peanut butter, because of the violence of that particular allergy, or drinking milk, because of the spill potential, just don't sit next to him. (That's right, 7 and 8 year old children do their part to keep my son safe with awareness and compassion.) He had an aide assigned to him during lunchtime, but everything has gone so well, that he now eats without the aide.
I am very, very aware of the risks involved in having my son eat lunch with the other students in the cafeteria. Another child at my son's school with severe food allergies eats in a classroom with a friend of his. My thoughts are that I would rather have him gradually start learning to function independently in an unsafe world, while supervised by adults who genuinely care for his well being and have appropriate medical training to handle any accidents, but I still worry.
Another of the protesters' complaints is about the lack of sugary treats at class parties. Here is my son's school's policy related to class parties, unrelated to my son's food allergies:
- There are only 3 classroom parties per year at which food is served. The teachers may select which holidays they wish to celebrate. (Typically it's Halloween, Christmas/Winter Break and Valentine's Day.)
- No homemade food may be given to the students. It must all be store bought and clearly labeled with ingredients.
In Kindergarten, the teacher let me know what the kids would be eating in advance, and I'd provide something similar for my son. So there was unsafe food in the classroom from time to time. (This also led to some unexpected creations, such as my Be My Valentine Cakes.)
For the last two years, though, the teacher has been simply amazing and allowed me to provide all of the treats for school parties. (She moved up from first to second grade with the class.) In addition, she even came up with a workaround, which allows me to bake safe treats for parties. The school has a full kitchen in the Kindergarten wing, so the day before a class party, I go in with unopened packages of ingredients, such as flour, sugar, etc., and bake on the premises.
In contrast, the first grade teachers at Edgewater Elementary made the following decisions about food in the classroom without regard to food allergies:
- They eliminated snacks due to the early lunch time at 10:45am, as did the fourth grade teachers for the same reason.
- They decided to do crafts instead of eat treats at holiday parties as part of the school's focus on healthy living.
Here's the real difference: the other parents in my son's class have been nothing but supportive. They have repeatedly expressed their concern for my son's safety and their appreciation for the goodies I provide. At Edgewater Elementary the parents have blamed a six year old girl for school policies unrelated to her disability. They also protested outside her elementary school with inaccurate information about her accommodations without either verifying her actual health plan or approaching either the school administration or the child's parents appropriately.
I truly believe that while plans to protect children with food allergies are critical, the people who implement them are even more important. Education about food allergies is meaningless without a willingness to be educated and the compassion required to keep a small child safe by something as simple as hand washing.
Update: A Facebook group has been started to support the Bailey family, if you'd like to join us.
*In case you were wondering, the title is in reference to this picket sign: