School board adopts food allergy policy, but nut-ban revisions possible
A policy that would ban peanuts and tree nuts from all public school classrooms was unanimously approved Tuesday by the Board of Education.
But the policy, which has been debated several months by the school board, likely will undergo revisions later this year because of its potential impact on the town's two high schools.
"I'm not really sure this has been completely vetted as to all the possible outcomes at the high school level," said Superintendent of Schools David G. Title.
The policy won't take effect until Sept. 1 at the town's secondary schools. And while the policy technically takes effect immediately at the elementary schools, Jennifer Maxon-Kennelly, a school board member and chairwoman of the board's Policy Committee, said a "roll-out" period would take place in advance of the policy's full implementation at those schools.
The policy also applies to "food-free zones" in elementary schools, such as the library, computer lab, music room, art room, gym, stage and science room, and undesignated "restricted areas" at secondary schools.
Rachel Keleher, a consumer science liaison for the town, said each of Fairfield's three middle schools has a culinary department and both high schools have both culinary departments and fully functioning restaurants. She said avoiding nuts wouldn't be a problem in basic culinary classes, but could be problematic in advanced classes that explore ethnic cuisine as well as at the high school's restaurants.
She said the culinary arts program already accommodates vegetarians, students with dietary restrictions based on religious reasons, and students with food allergies. In the latter case, she said, instruction is differentiated. But she said the culinary arts program and curriculum could be compromised if the peanut and tree nut ban applies to classes where none of the students have a food allergy.
Keleher said middle and high school students need to be able to monitor their environments and handle their food allergies independently. "We feel we ought to be more concerned about teaching students how to navigate the world around them rather than create a bubble," she said.
School board member Paul Fattibene expressed reservations about banning peanuts and tree nuts in high school classrooms because of the impact on culinary arts programs, and also questioned whether the policy would be overprotective of high school students.
Board member Eileen Liu-McCormack was also concerned about the policy's impact on culinary arts programs. "It leaves the whole curriculum in limbo and a huge amount of uncertainty," she said.
Tina Brown, who was in the audience, said it was "a shock" when the policy included secondary schools "because for so long the middle schools and high schools weren't in the policy." She said the policy could make "a huge difference" in what courses are offered in culinary arts.
Board Chairman Philip Dwyer said the late introduction into the policy of banning peanuts and tree nuts in secondary school classrooms, without having conversations with staff, was his biggest problem with the policy. But, he added, "We fully expect staff to look at the impacts, and this board is amenable to addressing the negative impacts without another year-long study."
The policy's requirement that two hand wipes be used by elementary school students after eating a snack in their classrooms -- one to cleanse their hands and the other for their desks -- also was a source of concern as Title reported that the school district's vendors and suppliers weren't aware of the "protein soluble wipes" referenced in the proposed policy. "That's not a term that's used in the industry," he said.
Title said he knew the policy's intent regarding wipes, but the school district needs latitude to find the best wipes for removing allergens and that also don't have ingredients the state does not permit. "We did spend quite a bit of time researching this. It's not as easy as it sounds," he said.
The school board deleted the words "protein soluble" from the policy.
Title said students would only need 30 seconds to a minute to use the wipes so the policy wouldn't take away from instructional time. He said the estimated annual cost of using wipes as spelled out in the policy was $30,000 "based on what we're currently using and buying in bulk."
"We're looking to see if those would do the trick," Title said. He added that he wanted to also consult with town health officials before deciding which brand to buy.
The wipes are required only at elementary schools.
Fattibene questioned whether the wipes would even be necessary since peanuts and tree nuts would be banned from classrooms.
Maxon-Kennelly said the wipes would be needed, at least initially, because mistakes would likely be made. "Because we are not in fact controlling that food we need to have the cleaning protocol," she said. She said the wipes also were designed to address other food allergens.
Tricia Donovan of Taintor Drive said the wipes are important because, without them, a false sense of security would be created.
School board member John Llewellyn said he thought the board could pass the policy and set a date by which Title could report back about its potential effect on secondary schools. "We've got to get something done. This has been bantered about forever," he said.
Dwyer said the policy could return to the board's agenda after Title thinks he has enough information to suggest potential modifications.
"In terms of the secondary schools, we have that Sept. 1 date so we have six months to figure it out," said Jessica Gerber, the board's secretary.
Maxon-Kennelly said the policy was developed in response to a state statute that requires school districts to develop protocols on food allergies that include preventing students from being exposed to allergens; developing individualized health plans for students with a life-threatening allergy; training and education of school staff, and procedures for emergencies related to a student's exposure to a food allergen.