From the moment my son was diagnosed with food allergies at 18 months old, I began to worry about school. Of course, I was worried about college – not preschool! I realized I might be getting a little ahead of myself, and brought myself back to the present.
Preschools have changed a lot since 1999 when my son entered. Back then, it was the rare preschool director who had heard of food allergies. Every preschool in our city denied our son admission because they either didn’t want to deal with the “liability of a food allergic child,” didn’t want to learn how to operate an EpiPen Jr., or didn’t want to monitor a nut-free classroom. We thankfully found a public preschool in our school district that believed a nut-free classroom was no big deal. We’ve learned a lot since then about preschool, K-12 and college.
The decision to send your food allergic child to school can be fraught with anxiety. We know. We’ve been there!
Some families choose to home school their child because of inhalant allergies that are very difficult to control in a school environment. Other families choose to home school with allergies that aren’t that severe mainly for the comfort level of the child or the parent. The choice is yours.
If you are interested in sending your child off to school, I can make some specific suggestions based upon what has worked and what hasn’t worked now that our son, Morgan, is in college.
In addition to searching for the right school to fit your child’s personality and educational needs, you now get to search for the school that understands food allergies! Some schools have never dealt with a food allergic child and they will need help gaining awareness and education. Other schools will have some experience, but may need more training in how to deal with the specifics of your child’s allergy.
Education and awareness of food allergies are key ingredients to success. You are the food allergy expert on your child. It’s a fine balance that must be achieved in teaching schools what accommodations will be needed for your child to attend school and in not asking for so much that they become overwhelmed and give up.
What works to keep food allergic children safe in preschool?
While visiting a potential preschool, set up a meeting with the director to discuss your child’s needs and allergies.
The meeting should occur in the spring before your child enters school the subsequent fall. This will allow ample planning for the school to change lesson plans and to train teachers about food allergies.
This meeting will give you a good idea as to how amenable the school is to working with you to provide accommodations for your child. We have found that schools that begin the conversation with excuses or reasons why it won’t work to have your food allergic child as a student aren’t worth pursuing.
Yes, you could pursue legal action, but who wants to do that? Who has the energy? Besides, I want a school that WANTS to educate my child, and isn’t forced into doing so!
Most administrators of preschools have heard of food allergies or have dealt with a student with food allergies. They may still need education regarding severe food allergies if your child has had contact reactions or inhalant reactions.
They may express disbelief that a child could be THAT allergic to a food! We’ve found it most helpful to explain the allergic reactions that our son has had in the past and how we’d like to keep that from occurring at school.
Some administrators and/or teachers may compare your child’s needs with that of a previous food allergic student. If the previous student was only mildly food allergic or the parents weren’t as vigilant about precautions, you will need to explain the severity of your child’s allergies and how vital it is that the school understands your child’s allergies and necessary precautions.
When you visit the school, ask several questions!
How much food is part of the lessons? Are there pets in the classrooms? Mold? Anything else that could impact your child?
Ask the school if they have ever had a food allergic child attend school? Has that child ever had an allergic reaction at school?
Is there a school nurse? If not, who would be responsible for administering the epinephrine should there be an emergency? Where would an epinephrine kit be stored?
Are the teachers willing to learn how to operate an epinephrine kit? Do the teachers seem willing to ask other parents to not bring in food that your child is allergic to? It can take quite a back bone to stand up to some parents!
Coop nursery or preschools can provide unique challenges.
I looked into one of these for our son. There was one teacher in the classroom responsible for the lesson plans. Parents of the 8 children in the classroom volunteered at least once per month to be the other adult on hand.
This would have required me to train each of those other parents how to use the epinephrine kit and to understand allergic reactions, because the teacher was able to leave the classroom while an adult was in the room.
This became much too monumental of a task, and we decided to go with a ‘standard’ preschool.
Public versus private preschool may be a choice in your region.
We found that private preschools in our area in 1999 had no interest in a child with food allergies. We found two strains of thinking in most of the private preschools: the first group said, “Sure no problem, we’ll take your child. We’ll just call you if he has a reaction.” We knew this wasn’t an option.
Anaphylaxis can occur instantly upon accidentally ingesting the food allergen. Waiting until a parent can get to the school to administer an epinephrine shot was a risk we weren’t willing to take.
The second group of schools said, “We don’t want to take on that kind of liability.”
We found our best solution was a public preschool housed in a local elementary school. They had a small classroom, 10 kids in all, with two teachers. Integrated into the classroom were 5 special needs children, and 5 typical peers. The special needs children could be diagnosed with speech delay, cerebral palsy or autism to name a few.
My son was classified as a typical peer; however he was placed under a Section 504 Plan (more later on this) which classifies his allergy as a disability. There was a child with severe food allergies that was a special needs student because his allergies had affected educational aspects of his life. He was under an SEP (Special Education Plan).
It’s difficult to volunteer in the classroom in preschool.
Most preschools want children to become accustomed to their parents not being immediately available, and want parents to become adjusted to letting go of their children. This can be especially problematic when food allergies are involved.
We found that trusting and educating the teacher became vital. She had to understand exactly what our son was allergic to and what to do in case of an allergic reaction. She also had to keep nuts out of the classroom, and explain that to the other parents in writing. We communicated at the end of each preschool day about how the day went and I began to slowly trust her and let go.
Get everything in writing!
We outlined a Health Care Plan (see below) which delineated the steps for the school to take should an allergic reaction occur. This was completed and signed by our allergist.
If a substitute teacher was called in, he/she needed to have the allergy information at their fingertips, and a written plan was the only way to ensure this would occur.
Ask that a letter be sent home to all parents explaining food allergies
A letter (see example below) to other parents explaining food allergies and any necessary accommodations (such as a nut-free classroom) needs to be sent home. It is best for this letter to be signed by the principal/director rather than sent out by you as the parent. Pitting yourself against other non-food allergic parents creates trouble from the start. If the principal/director sends home the letter, the lines of authority are drawn. Any accommodations that are created are then enforced by the school staff and not by you as a parent.
Make sure the school can contact you in case of emergency or with any communication need
My husband and I both have cell phones which we keep on at all times. We provided these numbers to the school and encouraged the teacher to call us with any questions.
We would receive phone calls that usually began with “everything is fine!” Then, the teacher would ask about an art project or some other activity that involved food.
It is VERY important to keep the communication open and constant between you, the parent, and the teacher.
Remember, it takes practice to let go of your child for a few hours and to ensure safety for your child. Every parent of a preschooler has some qualms about letting their child grow up into this new stage.
What works to keep food allergic children safe in elementary school?
If your child has been homeschooled until elementary school, there will be an adjustment period for both you and your child. With our son’s experience in preschool being so positive, we wanted to continue that trend in to elementary school.
There are generally a lot more children in an elementary school, multiple classrooms where your child will be, and likely a playground that is much further away from the office (where medications may be kept) and less monitoring on the playground.
Visit a potential school and set up a meeting with the principal to discuss your child’s needs and allergies.
Public schools are held to the standard of FAPE – Free Appropriate Public Education – for students with a defined disability. Life threatening food allergies are a hidden disability, but easily definable by your doctor.
Many private schools are willing to make accommodations even though they are not required to do so under the American with Disabilities Act, unless they receive public funding.
Visiting a school will give you a good idea as to how amenable the school is to working with you to provide accommodations for your child. We have found that schools that begin the conversation with excuses or reasons why it won’t work aren’t worth pursuing.
Once again, yes, you could pursue legal action, but who wants to do that? Who has the energy? Besides, I want a school that WANTS to educate my child, and isn’t forced into doing so!
If you are applying at a private school, you may not receive as warm of a welcome as at a public school. Private schools likely do not receive funds from the US government, and therefore are subject to a different standard than are public schools. There are private schools that are willing to accommodate children with food allergies; however public schools are required to do so. Schools receiving government funds must comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Most public and private elementary schools today have dealt with a child with severe, life threatening food allergies. Other food allergic parents may take a more laid back approach which can cause confusion for a school administrator when you request more vigilant food allergy awareness and procedures. Do what’s right for your child!
A school with outstanding food allergy awareness is willing to 1) provide accommodations in writing for your child for their specific allergies, 2) admit what they don’t know and learn, 3) provide a written health care plan that outlines the steps to take if anaphylaxis were to occur, 4) train all necessary staff on the use of epinephrine, 5) have a school nurse in the building at all times, 6) include your child in every activity possible including field trips, 7) educate the community about food allergies, 8) refuse to allow any bullying behavior regarding food allergies, 9) find ways to celebrate without food and 10) stand up to parents (and educate them) who say that food allergies are ‘hogwash’!
Questions to Ask
During the visit at the school, notice how much food is part of the lessons. Are there pets in the classrooms? Mold? Anything else that could impact your child?
Ask the school if they have ever had a food allergic child attend school? Has that child ever had an allergic reaction at school?
Is there a school nurse? If not, who would be responsible for administering the epinephrine should there be an emergency? Where would an epinephrine kit be stored?
Remember that you will be dealing with the school administrators, nurse(s), counselor(s), teachers and other parents for several years at the elementary school of your choice. Making sure that everyone is in agreement as to the best practices for a food allergic child is key to success. All of the 10 items above may not be present at a school, so decide which are most important to you and your child and find that school!
You’ve decided upon the “right” elementary school – now what?
Obtain a letter from your allergist stating the specific allergies that your child has, and have it mailed directly to the director or principal of the elementary school. Have this letter mailed in the spring BEFORE your child is to start school.
The letter should also state what accommodations will be necessary in the school environment. Will your child need a nut free classroom? A milk free table in the lunchroom? A pet free environment throughout the school? Access to an epinephrine kit or inhaler?
Everything should be itemized so that the school administrators don’t think that you are the hyper-vigilant parent, and instead can deal directly with your allergist should they have questions.
Once the school has received the letter, set up a meeting with the principal or director to generate, in writing, a plan for your child’s medical needs and accommodations.
We have formalized this plan into two documents: a Health Care Plan and a 504 Plan.
The Health Care Plan (or Food Allergy Action Plan) specifies the steps to be taken in the case of an allergic reaction. Distinguishing between the severe allergic reaction and the mild allergic reaction is very important. The school nurse may not be present at your child’s school every day. Therefore, someone not in the medical field would be responsible for noting the reaction and determining the correct course of action. The school nurse would be responsible for developing the Health Care Plan, and for training specific personnel.
You will want to have this plan in place BEFORE the school year starts. Also, epinephrine autoinjector training MUST occur before the first day of school. Children can have reactions at any time. Waiting until the second week of school, when things calm down for teachers, may be too late for your child in an emergency. Make sure to include a photo of your child so that all staff will know not only your child’s name, but what your child looks like!
Your school district or state may have a standard form for all food allergic children to use and to have your allergist sign. If not, here is a sample plan below.
Here is an example of a Health Care Plan:
SEVERE ALLERGY HEALTH CARE PLAN School Year 20XX-20XX
Student Name: ______________________ School: _____________________
Teacher: ___________________________ Grade: _______________
Contact Phone Number for the Parents: _____________________________
Allergist/Physician’s Name: _______________________________________
School Nurse: _______________________ Contact Phone Number ____________
Trained Staff Members: _______________________________________________________________________
Emergency Contact: _______________________________________________
DIAGNOSIS: SEVERE LIFE THREATENING ALLERGY TO _______________________________________________________________
SHOULD 911 BE CALLED *** GIVE A COPY OF THIS CARE PLAN TO EMT’S***
SHOULD SCHOOL BE EVACUATED FOR AN EMERGENCY: OFFICE STAFF MUST TAKE EMERGENCY MEDICATIONS WITH THEM!
IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF THE CLASSROOM TEACHER TO HAVE A COPY OF THIS CARE PLAN IN “THE SUBSTITUTE TEACHER FOLDER” AND THAT THE SUBSTITUTE TEACHER IS AWARE OF SEVERE ALLERGIES AND THE LOCATION OF THE EPIPENS/AUVI-Q’s!
SIGNS OF A SEVERE LIFE THREATENING ALLERGIC REACTION MAY INCLUDE:
MOUTH: Itching & swelling of the tongue, lips or mouth
THROAT: Itching and/or a sense of tightness in the throat, hoarseness, and hacking cough, swallowing difficulty
SKIN: Hives, itchy rash and/or swelling about the face or extremities
GUT: Nausea, abdominal cramping, vomiting, and/or diarrhea
LUNG: Shortness of breath, repetitive coughing, and/or wheezing, difficulty breathing
PREVENTION: AVOID ALL CONTACT WITH (List Allergens)
ACTION FOR SEVERE ALLERGIC REACTION:
- GIVE EPIPEN/AUVI-Q AND BENADRYL® AS DIRECTED ONLY IF ABLE TO SWALLOW
- CALL 911 AND TELL DISPATCHER TO BRING MORE EPINEPHRINE
- CALL PARENTS OR EMERGENCY CONTACTS
- HAVE CHILD LIE DOWN WITH LEGS ELEVATED
DO NOT HESITATE TO ADMINISTER MEDICATION OR CALL 911 EVEN IF PARENTS CANNOT BE REACHED
EPIPEN/AUVI-Q WILL BE AVAILABLE WHERE?________________________________________
SIGNS OF A SEVERE ALLERGIC REACTION MAY INCLUDE:
Hives, eye swelling, nasal congestion or wheezing but NOT severe breathing or swallowing difficulty
- GIVE BENADRYL® AS DIRECTED
- OBSERVE (KEEP CHILD IN SIGHT) FOR 20-30 MINUTES TO BE SURE REACTION IS SUBSIDING (Check abdomen, chest, legs also for hives)
- NOTIFY PARENT
SIGNS OF MILD TO MODERATE REACTION MAY INCLUDE- eye swelling, nasal congestion, hives, eczema
- GIVE BENADRYL® AS DIRECTED
- OBSERVE (KEEP CHILD IN SIGHT) FOR 20-30 MINUTES TO BE SURE REACTION IS SUBSIDING (check abdomen, chest, and legs for hives)
- NOTIFY PARENT
School Nurse Signature
The 504 Plan
The 504 Plan stipulates the accommodations your child will need in order to safely attend school and participate in activities. This plan will generally be created with a group of administrators and you, the parents, in attendance – the 504 Team. Many school districts have 504 administrators who oversee such plans. The school principal, school counselor, teacher, parents and frequently the child, all make up the team.
This plan is legally binding. Beyond that, having a written plan of accommodations ensures that there is no confusion as to the exact steps that need to be taken to keep your child safe and included in as many school activities as possible.
Some schools will be apprehensive to create a 504 Plan for a food allergic child and will want to only agree to a Health Care Plan. Our experience was that our son was too often asked to not participate in school activities, whether it was in the classroom or a field trip, because of his food allergies when he started elementary school. We wanted to ensure his inclusion in all safe activities, or for the teacher to find an adequate substitute for the entire class. A 504 Plan ensures that a child with a disability is included in the activities as much as possible, whereas a Health Care Plan didn’t cover the exclusion issue. We therefore asked for both a 504 Plan and a Health Care Plan.
You will want to have the 504 Plan in place BEFORE the school year starts. Ensure that every teacher who will teach your child has read this plan, and is aware of the specific accommodations.
We rewrote the 504 Plan on an annual basis in the spring. This allows next year’s teacher(s) to be brought into the meeting. We reviewed what went well during the school year, what problems we had and what needed to be changed in the 504 Plan for the upcoming school year. Our son always participated in these meetings.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was amended in 2008 to include eating as a major life activity. Therefore, obtaining a 504 Plan for your food allergic child should no longer be as difficult to obtain. You can read the new amendment to this Act here.
Here is an example of a 504 Plan:
504 ACCOMMODATION PLAN
Student Name: ________________________________________
DOB: _________________________ Age: Grade:
Referral Source: _______________________________
How does the disability affect a major life activity?
Severe Allergy to: _______________________________
Diagnosed by: _____________________
Impacted Life Activity: Presence at school
Explain how the disability impacts the major life activity: ____________________________________________________________________
Summary of evaluation data: (Information from a variety of sources including professional evaluations and reports and parent information.)
What does the student need in order to have access to the curriculum?
Accommodations to meet student’s needs (These are examples. Your child’s accommodations will be specific to their needs):
- A nut free classroom environment. Carpets or tile floors need to be cleaned in the classroom before school begins.
- In the cafeteria, a nut free table will be marked and used by student and others who don’t have nuts in their lunch.
- The students will wash their hands after lunch, before going to the playground on a daily basis, independent of the school lunch menu.
- Notification will be made of the parents and students in the same grade with food allergic student of restrictions on food brought into the classroom. A class meeting will be held for students at the beginning of the school year.
- Awareness of food allergies in the school community will be done through letters and articles in the school newsletter. Inclusion of food allergies as one of many differences among people that must be respected, will be integrated in lessons where appropriate.
- When new students come into the same grade, letters previously distributed about food restrictions will be included in their information packets.
- Class field trips will be attended by mother who will carry EpiPen or the medication will be carried by teacher in charge.
- Parents will provide safe snacks to eat during daily snack time and student birthday celebrations. Birthday or other special treats served in the classroom should not have nuts in them. If the staff member in charge becomes aware that an unsafe situation exists, s/he will either remove the unsafe items or ask for help to make the environment safe.
- Mother will help to plan holiday parties for the class to ensure a safe party environment.
- The School Nurse will provide information and training to appropriate school staff with special attention to any science lessons or art lessons that could involve materials child is allergic to.
- Students and teachers will not eat lunch in the classroom.
- Food, if used as a reward, should not be given to child. Stickers, pennies, or points are safer.
- Instruments in Music and the keyboards in the computer lab need to be cleaned before child uses them.
- Any other classes with snacks that include nuts should not go onto the playground to eat the snack.
Health Care Plan will be given to all appropriate school staff.
Duration of services: Until next review, or 1 year
When will this plan be reviewed? _______________________
Signatures of participants _______________________________
Explanatory letter home to students and parents
I’ve found it best to have the school principal and/or school nurse send home a letter to students and parents explaining food allergies at the beginning of the school year. I suggest this for two reasons: it will keep your child’s name confidential if that is important to you, and it will also keep you out of the middle of what may be opinions as to a food-allergen-free classroom.
Most parents have been wonderful and adhere to the letter without any problems. They go above and beyond what will keep our son safe. We have found some cultural and language barriers with understanding food allergies. Translators may be necessary for other parents to understand the severe nature of your child’s food allergies.
We have found a few parents who don’t want to adhere to the food restrictions simply out of spite. We have not asked for a nut free school, simply a nut free classroom. Yet this has angered some parents. From our experience, it’s best to allow the school principal to deal with these parents. We don’t want our child to be in the middle of a firestorm!
Here’s an example of the letter home to parents:
DEAR: KINDERGARTEN PARENTS
FROM: SCHOOL PRINCIPAL
RE: STUDENT WITH LIFE THREATENING ALLERGIES
THIS IS CONFIDENTIAL HEALTH INFORMATION
We have a student at school with severe life threatening allergies to peanuts. To insure a safe school environment we will be implementing some very important accommodations.
If this child were to accidentally ingest peanuts, anaphylactic shock could ensue which is a life threatening allergic reaction. Because of these risks we are requesting a NUT FREE KINDERGARTEN classroom.
Also, be aware of providing nut free treats for birthday parties and holiday parties. Please read labels and take note of peanuts and nuts listed when you prepare snacks for the class or send in packaged snacks. Many foods contain nuts, peanuts or by-products, such as peanut oil.
We appreciate your understanding and support in meeting these important accommodations. We anticipate a safe and healthy school year for all of our students.
Should you have any questions, please feel free to contact ____________________________________________________
All of the previous items related to discussions to be had in the spring of the school year prior to your child entering school. Waiting until the school year has begun doesn’t allow ample time for all the meetings to be scheduled or for the documents to be completed.
Teachers REALLY appreciate knowing about your child’s needs ahead of time! It gives them the summer to change lesson plans, if that’s necessary. It gives the school nurse the opportunity to train staff prior to the school year starting. And it gives you, the parent, comfort that your child will be safe at school from the first day.
Starting the school year with food allergies
Once the school year begins, we find that the first few weeks are the most likely to have problems. Everyone is getting accustomed to accommodations that need to be made. You may receive several phone calls from the school staff inquiring about safety.
Visit your child’s school frequently! Volunteering in the classroom is not only good for your child educationally; it’s also good to see what is being done with food, accommodations and safety.
For the first several years (kindergarten through 2nd grade), I would eat lunch in the cafeteria with my son the first few days of school. I wanted to ensure he was safe and included!
Your child’s epinephrine autoinjector needs to be brought to school by the first day, assuming that such has been prescribed. There may also be the need for Benadryl® and for an inhaler for asthma. You will probably have to complete paperwork on the exact directions of administration of these medications. Your physician or allergist may also need to sign the paperwork.
You will need to agree with the school where these items will be stored. Some schools want to keep them in a locked cabinet in the nurse’s room.
Locked cabinets can be hazardous if only one person has the key, and that person is absent when an allergic reaction occurs. If the cabinet must be locked, per school rules, ensure that the key resides on top of the cabinet or some other conspicuous place for the adults, and hidden enough from the students.
Every state in the USA has passed legislation allowing children with allergies and/or asthma to carry their medications with them in school once they are able to self-medicate. Most agree that this would be around the age of 10-12 years old. Your child’s abilities may differ. Have your child practice carrying their medication with them when not in school to determine the level of responsibility that they exhibit. Could they ALWAYS remember the medication in school, even if they’ve had to change clothes in PE? What about keeping other curious children away from their meds? Can they recognize an allergic reaction and inject themselves if necessary?
Immune system challenges
With the school year beginning, your child is being exposed to an entirely new set of germs, kids and environments! My son got sick with a cold within the first week of school every year. His immune system needed a jump start to get accustomed to the school environment. This is also the time when he’s more likely to be sensitive to new allergens, and may experience more mild allergic reactions.
An allergen free table in the lunchroom may be necessary if your child has had contact reactions. You may want to create a sign that says “Nut Free Table” or “Milk Free Table” for a younger child.
Once children get older, they may be less inclined to want such announcements of their allergens! At that point, they may be able to monitor those children around them to ensure that foods eaten are safe. We found this didn’t occur until middle school around 8th grade.
Inclusion in the lunchroom is VERY important. Having a child sitting by themselves during lunch is never what a parent wants, especially if that child is food allergic. Some schools have taken the attitude that the only way a food allergic child can be kept safe is for them to eat alone in the office. This is almost never the only solution. The school needs to be helped to find alternative solutions!
We’ve found it best to situate the allergen-free table in front of the lunchroom monitor, and away from the garbage cans. Washing hands after lunch is a great way to insure that peanut butter doesn’t end up on the playground, for example. All children would benefit from hand washing, not just those who have eaten the allergen. It’s difficult for children to know when to wash and when not to wash. Washing hands every day is good practice.
Removing peanut butter from the school lunch menu may or may not occur if your child is peanut allergic. Many schools don’t run the cafeteria, nor do they have a say in the menu. The cafeteria staff is contracted from outside the school district, yet they can be asked to remove certain highly allergenic foods from the menu. It’s always worth a try!
Some schools allow children to bring snacks on the playground during recess. If your child is severely allergic, peanut shells on the playground or yogurt cups can be hazardous. You may need stipulations of only certain foods being allowed on the playground, or none at all.
The recess monitor may need to carry the epinephrine kit outside if the playground is a significant distance from the location of the kits. Also, a cell phone is necessary for the monitor or teacher to have in case of emergency.
Food Allergy Awareness
When children are young, it is up to the classroom teacher to make other students aware of classroom rules regarding food. We’ve found that students want to look out for their classmates. They want everyone to be safe.
As kids grow older, this allergy awareness continues. Children in my son’s elementary school stood up for him in many situations where an allergen was brought into the classroom accidentally. They became his eyes and ears at times.
Your child will become the teacher and self-advocate as he/she matures. Our son knew exactly what he was allergic to, how to read labels, what’s not safe to touch, and how to train others to use his EpiPen. He gave PowerPoint presentations at school explaining his allergies, and telling his classmates what they can do to help keep him safe. Fellow students hear this message loud and clear, and probably better than from a teacher!
Other Concerns to be aware of at school
Enrichment programs, day care and other events at the school may not be aware of your child’s food allergies. Don’t make assumptions! If your child is to be a participant in any of these activities, make sure to provide a copy of the Health Care Plan and 504 Plan, if necessary, to the leaders of the group. At least, have a discussion with the adults in charge. Explain your child’s allergies and what problems may occur if he/she were to touch a peanut, or get milk spilled on them, etc.
If your child isn’t to be a participant, yet you are concerned that Science Enrichment will have seeds leftover in the Science room – make sure to voice your concern! Other teachers may be brought in for enrichment classes. These teachers may not be aware that food allergic children are students in the school.
For years, field day at my son’s elementary school involved an egg toss which sprayed raw egg all over the sidewalks and students. If your child is egg-allergic, this could be a disaster! Any special event days at school need to be monitored closely for food.
Pets in the Classroom or on the premises
If your child is severely allergic to pets, watch out! Many schools have canine companions in the school classroom for disabled students, or in training with a teacher. Pets can be brought in for show-and-tell or just brought on a leash to walk a child to school.
Birds are also a popular classroom pet. If your child is allergic to any fur or feathers, ensure that this is stipulated in the Health Care Plan and that the 504 Plan states a pet-free classroom.
Peanut butter bird feeders were a kindergarten art project for years at my son’s school! For your peanut allergic child, this could be life-threatening. Ask the teacher what projects will involve food. Help plan alternatives.
I always signed up to be a Room parent to help out with holiday parties. It’s difficult to be requesting food items to be allergen-free if I don’t have an awareness of what food is likely to be brought in. If I help to plan the parties, safe foods can be placed on the menu and everyone can participate.
Many schools allow the birthday child to bring in treats for the classroom on their special day. We sent in safe snacks for our son to have on these occasions. Expecting other families to be aware of what foods are safe, and then to bring those foods into school has been more than what most families can handle.
Instead, we ask that the classroom be allergen-free, which means all snacks ‘should’ be safe. However, I don’t trust someone else to cook for my son. The batch of chocolate chip cookies made right after the peanut butter cookies may not be safe for the peanut-allergic child. However, it would qualify for nut free in the minds of most people!
Field trips are an exciting part of school life. Without proper monitoring, these can be dangerous outings for the food allergic.
I attended every field trip with my son in order to bring his epinephrine kit, and also to insure that no allergens were likely to ruin the trip. I have seen signs in a local museum by the display for dinosaur bone digging that stated, “Sand made from walnut dust.” A teacher is going to be more concerned with keeping her students together, while I’m going to be looking for potential hazards such as this!
If you can’t attend the field trip, make sure that the epinephrine kit for your child is being carried by someone responsible. Many schools don’t have full time school nurses, therefore a teacher or other classified staff would be responsible for carrying the medications until your child is old enough to carry them.
If your child rides a school bus, an extra epinephrine kit will need to travel on the bus. The driver will need to be trained how to use the epinephrine autoinjector and will need a copy of the Health Care Plan. Many school districts have banned food on school buses due to allergy concerns and due to the mess!
There are probably as many specific situations for you to experience as we’ve outlined here.
The main thing we’ve found is that education and awareness of food allergies increases the likelihood of success. I define success as my son’s complete enjoyment of school that isn’t inhibited by his food allergies, nor is he excluded from activities. It is a balancing act some days.
It takes the child, parents, administrators, school nurse and teachers all working together to make it work. It also takes constant communication and awareness of activities that might create problems. I’ve found it’s preferable to think through a potential problem before it occurs and outline several possible solutions.
A working partnership between the teacher and parents is so important. The more I helped in the classroom, the more the communication flowed between our family and the school. My son has to know that his teacher is his protector in case of an allergic reaction. He must be able to trust that she/he knows what to do, and better yet knows how to preclude such a reaction from occurring.
Here are some additional resources that might be helpful to you and your school in creating a 504 Plan:
It states that if your allergic child is considered to be disabled under ADA (anaphylactic reactions) the school is responsible for providing your child with a safe meal. That includes having the school food service employees actually call manufacturers, if needed. (See page 25 of the pdf file)
Nationwide and Statewide Legislation and Guidelines for Food Allergic Students
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States developed a document titled, “Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs“. This is a great document to print out for your school and /or school district if they aren’t aware of the guidelines.