Amherst schools to ban nuts starting Oct. 15
Marta Guevara, left, and Maria Geryk speak during the 14th annual Minority Student Achievement Network National Student Conference last week at Amherst Regional High School.
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AMHERST — Starting Oct. 15, after the long holiday weekend, nuts will be banned from Amherst schools.
Peanuts, walnuts, almonds and all other tree nuts and products that contain them, that is. That means no more peanut butter on school grounds before, during and after school.
School officials say the reason is to protect students who are highly allergic to those foods and could face life-threatening reactions if they are exposed to them — even through contact with those who have touched the products, or by breathing in fumes when foods containing nuts are cooking.
“We made the decision based on safety and not wanting to take a risk,” said Faye Brady, director of student services and chairwoman of the school district’s wellness committee. “We know from the literature that peanut allergy is one the most common food allergies and the reaction is potentially fatal.”
Superintendent Maria Geryk said about 100 students throughout the schools in the district are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts.
“We’ve talked about this for years,” she said. “It’s like locking the school doors. It will be an adjustment, but it will be fine. It will make life easier for those who are sending their children to us with these allergies.”
Amherst is not alone in taking such action.
The Hampshire Regional School District bans nuts and nut products, too. The district has had a ban on nuts at selected schools where students with peanut allergies are enrolled, but this year extended that systemwide, said health coordinator Mary Phelan.
“We always seem to have a couple of kids who are sensitive, and now we have more than a couple of students who are extremely sensitive,” including at the high school now, which has its first allergic students enrolled this year. She did not have the number of students.
Northampton and Easthampton schools follow peanut-safe protocols, such as providing peanut-free tables in the cafeterias for students with allergies and zeroing in on specific classrooms where students with allergies spend their time.
“We have procedure for making sure kids are safe, but don’t necessarily discourage all those products in a general way,” said Karen Jarvis-Vance, director of health and safety for the Northampton schools. For example, she said, letters would go home to classmates of allergic students asking that families not send nut products to school with their children. Schools with allergic children also have separate tables in the lunchroom and surfaces are thoroughly cleaned, she said.
Similar accommodations are made in the Easthampton schools, said Superintendent Nancy Follansbee.
In Northampton schools, according to Jarvis-Vance, 169 students have food allergies of some sort, although the data are not broken down by foods. None of the cafeterias in the schools serve peanuts or cook with peanut products.
“We try to keep it as least restrictive as possible while keeping the students safe,” Jarvis-Vance said.
Brady said Amherst’s wellness committee started out last year looking to standardize the health and safety guidelines for all its schools. A subcommittee chaired by a nurse and made up of parents, teachers, administrators was asked to look into life-threatening allergies. She said the subcommittee came to the conclusion that nut allergies were the most common dangerous conditions among children in the schools.
She said that mirrors national statistics provided by the nonprofit group Food Allergy Research and Education, based in McLean, Va. That organization, which works on behalf of Americans with food allergies, says its studies have shown that the number of children with peanut allergies tripled between 1997 and 2008 for reasons that have not been determined.
The organization warns that peanuts can trigger a severe, potentially fatal reaction in those who are sensitive to them and therefore those individuals should have access to an epinephrine auto-injector. According to the nonprofit’s website, 25 to 40 percent of those who have peanut allergies are also allergic to tree nuts, which can spur the same deadly reaction.
For that reason, and the high degree of sensitivity of those allergic to others who have come in contact with, say, a peanut butter sandwich, the subcommittee decided it was best to keep the foods out of the schools completely, Brady said.
“We’re not guaranteeing that there will never be a nut product brought in,” she said. “We don’t have the ability to make that guarantee, but we are requesting that all staff, students and families not bring nuts or foods processed with nuts into the schools.”
She said isolating nut-sensitive students at separate tables in the cafeteria would not be consistent with the schools’ commitment to inclusion. “We don’t want to have students who have any type of disabling condition put in separate places,” she said.
Principals and teachers have informed parents at the open houses held at the beginning of the school year that the change is coming, and letters and guidelines and a sheet with frequently asked questions will be sent to families later this week, she said.
There are also presentations scheduled for later this month by Canadian performer Kyle Dine, who suffers from multiple food allergies and travels around the United States giving entertaining presentations to educate children. Last year he was at Fort River School and this month he will be at Pelham, Wildwood and Crocker Farm elementary schools as well as the middle school.
“This is an educationally relevant topic,” Brady said. “We don’t want to just say you can’t do this — we want people to understand why.”
Brady said that so far she has not received negative feedback from families, just questions.
One of those is, “My child eats a peanut butter sandwich every day at lunch. What am I doing to do?”
“Certainly, it will be a change of practice for that child,” Brady said. “But when we explain this is for safety reasons and not wanting to have any child encounter what can be a life-threatening reaction, people understand. We are fortunate to have a very caring community.”