Healthy Schools

Tackling food allergies at school

For parents of children with food allergies, school can sometimes seem like a minefield, with danger lurking everywhere.

Some students at Aurora's Park Lane Elementary eat lunch. The cafeteria pizza - unlike most pizzas - is made with whole wheat and lowfat cheese, so it's a "Slow" food. The lowfat milk is a "go" food.
PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Students at Aurora’s Park Lane Elementary eat lunch.

It’s not just the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that pop out of lunchboxes in the cafeteria. It’s the constant stream of food in the classroom, for snacks, parties, rewards, and even crafts like paper maché planets or peanut butter bird feeders.

Colorado Springs parent Katie Prichard knows the feeling. Her kindergarten daughter is allergic to peanuts, eggs, soy, sesame, green peas and apples, and while Pritchard is very pleased with the precautions in place at her charter school, Rocky Mountain Classical Academy, she said there are always worries. Sometimes about safety and sometimes about her daughter’s inevitable sense of being different.

“At school you should get to be like your friends…to have equal access to your classroom,” she said. “It’s kind of a barrage for a young kid in kindergarten.”

Pritchard, who leads Colorado Springs Mosaic, a group for parents of children with severe food allergies, said despite the challenges, she believes schools are moving in the right direction when it comes to accommodating food allergies.

“I’ve heard so many struggles other parents had before I came along,” she said “I definitely feel like things have improved.”

Kathleen Patrick, assistant director of student health services at the Colorado Department of Education, agreed, saying state laws and policies have enabled several key measures, such as allowing students to self-carry epinephrine auto-injectors, ensuring school districts have allergy policies and educating school staff about allergies.

Today, about 8 percent of children have food allergies, an average of two per classroom.

Patrick said when she was a school nurse years ago, she sometimes heard stories about school staff not taking a student’s food allergy seriously.

Today, she said, “We’re on the right road in terms of the education and getting the information out there…I think food allergy awareness is very high.”

Precautions vary

Nicole Smith, co- founder of the AllergicChild website and mother of a teenage son with food allergies, said the landscape for Colorado students with food allergies can vary depending on their school and district.

“Even within a school district you can have different levels of awareness,” she noted.

Patrick said sometimes the successful dissemination of food allergy information can hinge on how school nurses are deployed in a district. Compared to schools with a full-time nurse, there may be less overall awareness about allergy precautions, not to mention fewer trained staff members to administer epinephrine injections in an emergency, in schools where nurses work part time because they cover multiple buildings.

Another factor in how schools and districts measure up, she said, can be the presence of a parent, nurse or other staff member who serves as a champion for food allergy awareness and preparation.

Despite the differences between schools and districts, state policies and resources have created some uniformities in the last several years. Under a state law Smith helped pass in 2009, school districts are required to have policies to accommodate students with food allergies.

In Academy School District 20, which has a Food Allergy Task Force and is widely considered a leader on food allergy issues, the district’s five-page policy weighs in on food allergy issues large and small, from training staff to choosing field trip chaperones. (It’s recommended that parents of students with food allergies get preference.)

“Academy School District 20 is amazing, just plain and simple,” said Smith, whose son attends high school there. “They have long looked at the safety of every child.”

Often, food allergy measures depend on the number of students with food allergies at a school, the severity of their reactions, what precautions are requested by parents and what is deemed feasible by administrators.

For example, at some schools cafeteria tables are set aside for students with food allergies and there are strict rules about sanitation procedures as well as hand-washing guidelines for students.  This is the case at Ralston Elementary in Golden, where peanut and tree nut products are banned in all classrooms, but are permitted at designated cafeteria tables.

Even when schools have comprehensive plans in place and staff are attentive, allergens sometimes slip through the cracks. Patrick started tracking the number of students who experienced anaphylaxis and needed epinephrine at Colorado schools in the 2011-12 school year.

There were about 30 cases reported that year, and so far this school year, there have been 24. The causes include students sharing food, which is prohibited at most schools, but can be hard to enforce. In one case, a parent brought in cupcakes containing peanut products after signing up to bring something else. In another, a student with a latex allergy touched a balloon while she was helping decorate a friend’s locker.

“You can be as careful as possible and something may still happen,” Patrick said.

House Bill 13-1171

In case something does happen, many in the food allergy community are hoping that a bill currently under consideration in the legislature will lead to additional potential safeguards for children with allergies. Bill 1171, also called the stock epinephrine bill, would allow schools to keep epinephrine auto-injectors on hand for trained staff to use on students experiencing anaphylaxis even if they don’t have their own prescription.

The idea is to allow teachers or other school staff to immediately curb a life-threatening reaction during the crucial minutes before paramedics arrive. In part, the measure would protect students who have undiagnosed allergies that are triggered at school.

“Twenty-five percent of first-time [allergic] reactions occur in the school setting,” said Jennifer Jobrack, director of major gifts and regional advocacy for Food Allergy Research and Education, a national advocacy group.

Christianna Fogler, principal at Rocky Mountain Classical Academy, knows firsthand how that scenario plays out. Last fall, a first-grader at the school’s elementary campus came in from the playground and began experiencing anaphylaxis. The girl had no known allergies but her throat was closing and her breathing was labored, said Fogler, who will testify before the state Senate in favor of Bill 1171 this week.

After school staff called 911, paramedics arrived in just a couple minutes because they happened to be at a building down the street. They treated the girl, who may have reacted to a bug bite, and she recovered.

Fogler, who worries about what would have happened if the paramedics had taken 10 or 15 minutes to arrive, said the bill would empower school staff to do the right thing without worrying about liability or other legal issues. The school already trains all teachers, substitute teachers and lunchroom monitors how to recognize anaphylaxis and administer and EpiPen.

Currently, 17 states have laws covering stock epinephrine in schools, though the language and requirements range widely. Only Nebraska, Virginia and Maryland require schools to stock epinephrine auto-injectors. In most states, as would be the case in Colorado, the practice is voluntary.

Among the objections to the law are the expense of the auto-injectors, which typically cost $180 for a two-pack, and the extensive training needed to ensure school staff besides the nurse know what anaphylaxis looks like and how to use the auto-injectors.

Jobrack noted that Mylan Speciality, the distributor of EpiPens, has a program providing free and discounted EpiPens to schools, and that her organization has training resources available.

Trends toward protection and prevention

As a result of the Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, students with severe food allergies are also increasingly getting 504 plans, which provide children with disabilities accommodations to fully participate in school.

Holly Camp, administrator for food service operations for JeffCo Public Schools and a registered dietician, said she helped execute the first food allergy-related 504 plan in 2009. Today, about 50 students in the 85,000-student district have such plans, usually because of allergies or intolerances to gluten, dyes or casein, a protein found in milk.

As part of the plans, the students’ parents, physician and often the school nurse make a list of accommodations, which may range from using extra sanitizer at the student’s lunch spot to allowing them to be first through the cafeteria line to ensure their food is prepared and wrapped first.

Patrick believes the increasing use of 504 plans for food allergies is a good development. In addition to helping individual students who have the plans, it can raise awareness overall, she said.

“What they are doing for one, they will very often understand that it’s important for another student with a recognized food allergy,” she said.

Smith, of AllergicChild, said another encouraging trend she’s noticed is that school wellness initiatives aimed at reducing obesity are being coupled with efforts to reduce allergy risks. Thus, many schools are getting away from using food as rewards or as the focal point of class parties.

For example, a few elementary schools in the Thompson School District in Loveland  adopted regulations this year eliminating edible treats for student birthdays and sometimes communal snacks where every child gets a portion from a large box of crackers or cookies. Wellness coordinator Kathy Schlepp said the changes came because school staff were trying to respond to food allergy concerns and also “the extra calorie piece.”

The district’s wellness plan, which is currently being revised, will also include some version of these restrictions next year.

“It will definitely be trying to cut down on unhealthy classroom snacks or treats,” she said.

Detroit Journalism Cooperative

Restrictions on teacher pay in Detroit schools can scare away applicants — and make it hard to fill 260 classroom positions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

This story is published in partnership with Bridge Magazine, part of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.  

In Detroit, as many as 260 classroom teacher positions are unfilled in the state’s largest district, prompting a shortage so severe that substitutes last year were the full-time solution in more than 100 classrooms.

And with fewer new teachers are graduating from college every year, pressure is mounting to find qualified teachers. The situation has left teachers working harder in overcrowded classrooms for underwhelming pay –  they’ve seen their pay frozen and cut repeatedly in a district that’s beset with problems both financial and academic.

Yet in the face of a supply and demand problem, the Detroit teachers, like their peers in numerous Michigan school districts, have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of the folks who could help alleviate the shortage.

In Detroit, Dearborn and Roseville, new teachers can only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts. In Grand Rapids it’s five years, in Lansing it’s eight.

It’s difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants. But for those who are considering a move, the impact is huge.

Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.

Detroit already pays less, with teachers topping out at $65,265 after 10 years, compared with well over $78,000 in most districts. But the restriction put in place by the teachers –  and agreed upon by the administration –  makes that cut even more steep.

Union rules

In a number of Michigan school districts, teachers have negotiated to limit the pay of new hires, ensuring they cannot get full credit for prior teaching experience. In other districts, those decisions are left to the administration. In most cases “max pay” refers to salaries of teachers with master’s degree plus 30 additional hours of graduate education who have the maximum number of years of experience. Below are the 25 largest districts in the state. The restrictions were more common among the 21 districts that surround Detroit, with more than half calling for limits on credit for teaching experience.

District Maximum years of credit Years to top of scale Max pay
Detroit 2* 10 $65,965
Utica full 11 $89,563
Dearborn 2* 18 $82,006
Plymouth-Canton 5* 14 $81,049
Ann Arbor full 11 $80,769
Chippewa Valley full 12 $89,443
Grand Rapids 5* 12 $68,042
Rochester full 20 $86,420
Warren Consolidated full 12 $94,700
Walled Lake full 15 $90,362
Livonia 7 12 $84,595
Troy full 14 $92,400
Kalamazoo full 25 $76,881
Wayne-Westland 3* 14 $76,839
Lansing 8 22 $76,850
L’Anse Creuse full 16 $84,386
Farmington 4* 11 $86,830
Forest Hills full 28 $84,590
Traverse City full 20 $74,819
Waterford 8 15 $78,351
Huron Valley 5* 17 $75,915
Port Huron full 13 $69,831
Kentwood full 26 $80,403
Portage full 30 $88,808
Grand Blanc full 12 $73,588

*In some cases, the union contracts allow districts to acknowledge additional years of experience.

Source: Collective bargaining agreements

There’s little wiggle room because the collectively bargained contracts set salaries exclusively by experience and education. Critics say the restrictions put teachers’ interests ahead of students.

“School districts that want to attract the best teachers… for their students would not want these kinds of policies,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland. It has been frequent critics of teachers’ unions.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the language has been in the contract for years and acknowledges those teachers who’ve suffered through years of pay cuts and freezes.

“You have teachers who stayed here and endured it all,” she said. “They care about the children and they’ve stuck it out.”

Bailey said the contract allows the district more latitude when trying to hire teachers in critical areas such as special education. Those specialty areas can salary credit for up to eight years’ experience.

But if it’s not in a critical area, no dice. And that’s been a problem for principals wanting to fill vacancies such as Jeffrey Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson told Detroit Journalism Cooperative reporting partner Chalkbeat Detroit recently.

Despite the obstacles in pay and a push by officials some to consider uncertified teachers, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said the district “is committed to hiring certified teachers.”

Detroit is not the only district with restrictions. They are found in union contracts at districts large and small, wealthy and poor, urban and suburban and are the result of the anger stemming from pay cuts and freezes that have taken a huge chunk out of the earning power of teachers who have worked for years in troubled districts.

Not found everywhere

Bailey said it’s common for teachers who change districts to get less than full credit for their experience.

“We can’t do it when we go to another district, either,” she said. “Nobody’s going to give you all of your time.”

But a survey of teacher contracts from more than 40 districts around the state show that many allow district administrators to grant full credit.

In  Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Warren Fitzgerald, Warren Van Dyke, South Redford, Utica and others, a teacher could jump to the top of the scale without the teachers union contract prohibiting it.

In the Grosse Pointe schools, which pays among the best in the state, new teachers can be hired at the 13th of a 14-step salary schedule.

Yet in other places, teachers have put the brakes on salaries. Those that have are communities suburban and urban, wealthy and poor. In Oak Park, just north of Detroit, the teachers’ contract has a provision that says all new hires should be hired at beginners’ wages.

Hiring at higher levels “puts financial pressure on the district and creates an environment which disenfranchises staff currently restricted by contractual step freezes,” according to the contract.

The Walled Lake schools in Oakland County, the 10th largest district in the state, had restrictions in prior contracts. But the union agreed to take them out a few years ago even though they continue to encourage the district to hire teachers at as low a step as possible.

Still, the union recognized the need to give the district more flexibility.

“It makes it really hard to have one blanket policy for every opening,” said Daryl Szmanski, president of the teachers’ union in Walled Lake. “As a teacher shortage looms, it’s going to be harder and harder to get good candidates.”

To be sure, restrictions on teacher pay for outsiders is hardly the only factor in teacher shortages in parts of the state. It’s difficult to say if it’s even a major factor. Stagnant state funding for education, a steep drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and sometimes harsh public and political rhetoric directed toward public education almost certainly also play a role in the shortage. So too, there are far fewer substitute teachers available to fill in when permanent teachers are absent.

But for unions, the teacher shortage presents two bad choices: Be unhappy about crowded classrooms or be unhappy that new teachers make more money.

For the Mackinac Center’s DeGrow, the decision should be easy: Door No. 2.

“This kind of policy is just an obstacle for getting the best talent in the classroom,” DeGrow said. “The kids (in Detroit) are already as a disadvantage. Why would we want to make it harder to bring qualified teachers in?”

Need ‘best teachers’

Brad Banasik, director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he’s not heard complaints about the contracts, but noted that he thinks “administrators would like the ability to hire some on the higher step (pay level).”

Some unions agree. Doug Hill is a veteran teacher who’s now president of the Rochester teachers’ union in Oakland County and he said he’s aware of the painful cuts at other districts.

Hill’s union decided in a recent negotiation to remove a restriction on pay for counselors who held teaching certificates. The district had seen positions go unfilled but now can hire teachers in at whatever level experience they want.

“I can see both sides of this,” Hill said, but added “we’re trying to get the best teachers to put in front of students.”

Union officials say they asked for –  and got –  the restrictions because they say without it their veteran teachers would be demoralized by having new hires, who had not endured the same pay cuts and freezes, make more money doing the same work.

It would be hard to determine how often these provisions have hurt districts like Detroit and Dearborn. If  teachers know they’d have to take a $20,000 or $30,000 pay cut, would they even apply? And they’d likely know: All Michigan districts are required to post their teacher contracts online; Bridge did its survey using this easily-to-access information.

“I think they’re very aware of what’s out there,” Rochester’s Hill said.

For Detroit and other districts, that may be a problem.

This story originally ran in Bridge Magazine on June 15, 2017.

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET, Chalkbeat, and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.

First Person

I had an anxiety attack in school, and a social worker saved me. What about the students without one?

My first anxiety attack was in a school hallway. Nestled between a doorway and a red bulletin board of exemplary student work, I collapsed. My sight became hazy. My breath became nonexistent. My limbs became numb. Tears stained my cheeks. My heart beat like a broken machine.

I raised my head up to see a teacher closing the door and pulling the blinds, isolating me from the eyes of curious students. I felt like I was merely a nuisance interrupting her lesson.

“Zubaida! Zubaida!” I turned my head to see the school social worker, Ms. McNeil, running down the hall. She sat next to me, held my hand, and slowed my breathing down. I had never talked to the social worker before. However, after my first anxiety attack, she became an important part of my life.

Sadly, I am not the only student of color who suffers from anxiety or other related mental issues. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, around 41 percent of college students struggle with anxiety. Furthermore, 25 percent of adolescents will struggle with some form of anxiety and 12.5 percent struggle with depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

We also know that not everyone has the courage to reveal their mental issues. Who knows how many students struggle with mental issues and aren’t able to seek help?

The most distressing part is the response to students of color with emotional issues. It is no secret that communities of color can have a certain stigma towards mental illnesses. Sometimes, parents actively refuse to seek help or ignore the signs of mental illness.

national survey in 2015 revealed that Hispanic and black students who have felt overwhelmed are more likely than white students to keep their concerns to themselves. White students were more likely to feel academically and emotionally prepared for college. White students were also twice as likely to get treated for emotional distress. Why?

Meanwhile, many New York City students don’t have access to a social worker or counselor. In fact, there were only 2,902 guidance counselors and 1,275 social workers in New York City this school year. That’s a ratio of one counselor or social worker for every 241 students.

Without professional help, many students turn to substance abuse to cope with their mental illness. Other students continue to accumulate stress from academics and family issues. If parents and teachers want to help their minority students to succeed, they need to invest in mental support.

This isn’t to say we’ve been neglected completely. Counselors in the Bronx have worked on initiatives this past year to help students reach their potential, prepping them for life after high school, and school-based health centers have opened to provide mental health support. Like all things, however, there is always more work to be done.

The stigma surrounding mental illness and mental illness patients in communities of color is certainly unfair and detrimental to our health. However, the fact that this stigma is affecting the success of students of color is even more enraging. We deserve better. Administrators, politicians, and educators must realize the importance of having even more social workers and guidance counselors.

Right now, somewhere in the Bronx, there is a young girl like me, having her first anxiety attack. Her fingers are numb. Her sight is hazy. Her heart is beating like a drum as she watches somebody close the door in her face. She can’t move, a mere witness to her breakdown. But there is no Ms. McNeil who can save her.

Zubaida Bello is a junior at Uncommon Preparatory Charter High School in Brooklyn. She has performed original poetry at the Apollo and New York Live Arts and has been honored by the Black Lives Matter club at her school. In her free time, she enjoys reading and skateboarding.