GLOUCESTER — Eleven-year-old Jonathan Shao is among the 6 million American children and 155 students at Gloucester County Public Schools who live with a food allergy.
"We found out the hard and scary way that Jonathan had food allergies when he was 18 months old," said his mother, Amy Shao. "At the time, I didn't know much of anything about food allergies."
Jonathan Shao had a severe reaction at day care to peanut butter crackers and was hospitalized.
"That was scary," Amy Shao said. "After that, we worked to get educated in a hurry."
Jonathan's day care instituted a no-peanut policy, but when he began kindergarten a few years later a new environment posed new threats.
For students like Jonathan, those threats can range from concerns over anaphylaxis, which is a serious and life-threatening allergic reaction, to social issues, including bullying and alienation.
For those reasons, the school division, like others across the country, is proposing a new food allergy policy that would eliminate bringing any outside foods into the schools for celebratory occasions.
"It would be a major change," said Shirley Chirch, Gloucester's environmental health and safety manager. "The potential for a reaction is out there everywhere … so we need to be addressing all of the areas where students can be exposed to hazards. Our most important job is to keep our students and staff safe."
According to Robin Zophy, the nurse at Bethel Elementary, regulating outside food is frustrating. The schools require items to be store-bought only to try to prevent cross-contamination from homemade treats.
That has not ensured safety because some stores do not guarantee no cross-contamination and labels have become hard to decipher.
Zophy said it is also difficult for staff to monitor and keep track of food allergies.
"We expect teachers and staff to do so much each day," Amy Shao said. "It would simplify things to just eliminate the outside food. It's too much to put on teachers, administrators and school nurses."
Angela Hogan, an allergy and immunology specialist with the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters, presented information on food allergies to the Gloucester School Board in April and showed several examples of cases where allergies turned dangerous and even deadly in schools. The cases ranged from accidental contamination to a bully's intentional exposure.
Although Amy Shao's son has not experienced the bullying side of food allergies, he has suffered the isolation.
"The biggest challenges came during times of special parties and occasions. Nine times out of 10, foods brought in were not safe for him," Amy Shao said. "It's hard when your child comes home crying cause he feels left out."
For a while, Zophy kept a "safe" pack of brownies in the freezer for Jonathan Shao during these occasions, but by second grade, he stopped crying and asking for his brownie.
"He just kind of accepted that he would be left out," Amy Shao said. "Robin Zophy has been my sanity throughout it all, and even though it's been hard on him, the one thing that has been a benefit is now he embraces others who feel left out because he knows how it feels. He goes out of his way to include everyone."
Food allergies among children have significantly risen in the last 20 years. Hogan said reasons can be linked to increased awareness and environmental exposure.
Schools are now required to implement policies and stock epinephrine for emergencies.
"You can't bury your head in the sand," Hogan told the school board. "At this point, food allergies are everywhere and if they continue at this certain rate, then we are going to be dealing with food allergies for a long time."
School officials plan to provide an educational session for staff and then solicit feedback before moving forward with the proposed policy.
Jonathan Shao is moving on to middle school, which will bring new challenges.
"We have been fortunate and I know he will do great in the new environment," Amy Shao said. "This food allergy policy … would be safer for the kids and a lot less liability on the schools and really hard working teachers."
Hubbard can be reached by phone at 757-298-5834.
See video and more information on food allergies online at dailypress.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun