Opinion: Allow schools to protect the health of their students

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A huge thank you to all educators, health-care workers, and parents seeking to keep children safe, healthy and well-cared for during these difficult times. Unfortunately, current government policies, lack of good public health education, and lack of government support for local problem-solving are preventing you from fully making the decisions you need to make.

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Let’s talk about the issue of preventive health care in educational settings. I teach a course at the University of Calgary called Comprehensive School Health. It is based on the premise of common-sense health promotion and prevention for the good of all students.

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One of the concepts we talk about is the peanut allergy rule of thumb. Educational staff need to know a few simple steps based on public health information: If a child has a diagnosed peanut allergy, what are the steps to prevent an acute allergic reaction? where is their EpiPen; how to use it when necessary; and when to refer for medical treatment. Basic, common-sense guidelines. Some schools take it a step further and request no peanuts at all in the school as the strongest act of prevention.

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Educational staff don’t have to have a medical degree to diagnose peanut allergies or know all about the pathogen and anaphylactic processes associated with peanut allergies, nor how to provide advance medical treatment for severe allergies. Just keep the peanuts away from the child and help them when needed. Simple. Effective. common sense.

People generally accept that food allergies are factual health issues that require preventive measures. Not all children have peanut allergies of course, but if 100 per cent of students were at risk of peanut allergies in schools, you can bet there would be 100-per-cent adherence to all basic prevention measures. No questions asked. Might have a bit of grumbling over not eating a pb and j sandwich for lunch, but people understand the importance of preventive health measures in saving someone’s life.

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Now let’s imagine a different health issue. It isn’t a specific allergic reaction to a known trigger like peanuts, but has very serious long-term impacts on the lungs, heart, and brain, and could be potentially disabling. Let’s imagine there is no EpiPen for the systemic reaction to the pathogen. Let’s imagine this pathogen has no known cure, no known course of treatment, no end in sight, and can potentially affect every child and adult in the school, home and community. Let’s imagine this pathogen has a known entry point — the nose and mouth.

Now let’s imagine that there are simple preventive measures to prevent the pathogen from entering the body — covering the known entry points. 100-per-cent effective? Maybe not. But it’s a starting point. A simple, medically recommended preventive measure. Perhaps another preventive measure is improving air quality. Another is hand-washing. Put these all together in good public health messaging, and people can make informed choices. Simple. Effective. common sense.

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All children are at risk of developing long-term issues from airborne pathogens that cause serious illness. We have children with diagnosed autoimmune issues at high risk in schools. That can be easily prevented.

However, we have a serious problem. Our current government is preventing good public health education and preventive measures in schools. If only everyone understood the parental fear of something happening to their child that could have been prevented.

Would the minister of education mandate all children to eat peanuts? Would she mandate the removal of all EpiPens from schools? If a child died from a severe allergic reaction due to her mandate, would she shrug her shoulders and say, “these things happen?” No. Yet why is she treating prevention for peanut allergies with more respect than simple preventive measures for life-threatening airborne viruses?

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Current government decision-makers have removed simple, logical, protective measures in schools, and provided zero ability for schools and communities to engage in collaboration with local health authorities to make public-health decisions that benefit children.

This is irresponsible negligence, government overreach, and an appalling ignorance of the importance of best practices in public health prevention and promotion and the importance of localized decision-making in schools and communities.

Of course we can’t bubble wrap kids forever. But we have a civic responsibility to do the absolute best we can to implement simple prevention measures to keep children safe, healthy and well-cared for now. That is the foundation of prevention. Our future depends on it.

Angela Grace is a registered psychologist in Calgary.

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