What works to keep food allergic children safe in elementary school?

Since my son, Morgan, is now starting his senior year in high school, we’ve had a lot of experience with the anxiety of the start of the school year. It’s much better now, but I so remember the fear that I might miss something that would be the key ingredient in keeping him safe at school!

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Hopefully, you have already visited your child’s elementary school and let them know (preferably last spring) that your child has food allergies and will be entering kindergarten – if that’s the case for you – or will be back for this school year with food allergies that need to be managed.

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 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 than what occurred in preschool.

Here are some suggestions that we’ve found vital to keeping your child safe in grade school:

Set up a meeting with the principal to discuss your child’s needs and allergies.

Again, hopefully you’ve already done this last Spring. If not, make an appointment today! You don’t want to show up on the first day of school with an EpiPen and trying to tell the teacher how to care for your child while he/she is learning the names of 25 students. That isn’t fair to the teacher nor to your child.

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 based upon the advice of your doctor!

Have a letter from your allergist/physician stating the accommodations needed 

Your child may need an allergen-free classroom because of contact reactions to peanuts, for example. Your child might need a milk-free zone in the cafeteria for lunch. Your doctor has the best knowledge about your child, and should therefore put in writing what will be necessary for your child to safely attend school and to be included in all the academics.

Become knowledgeable about the laws available to manage food allergies

Public schools (those who receiving funding from the US Government) must provide FAPE – Free Appropriate Public Education. The term ‘reasonable accommodations’ was believed to be the standard in years past, but this standard is for colleges and employment. FAPE applies to children with food allergies.

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). The ADA Amendments of 2008 no longer focuses on the disability but on what services a person needs. The 2008 amendments expanded the list of major life activities.

Have a Health Care Plan/Food Allergy Action Plan 

The Health Care Plan, also called a 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, EpiPen® 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!

Ask that your child with food allergies be evaluated for a 504 Plan

A 504 Plan isn’t just for those students who can’t get what they need to be safe at school. In other words, it doesn’t have to be a contentious relationship for your child to need a 504 Plan. A 504 Plan is provided so that your child can enjoy inclusion in all activities, and have the accommodations in writing. It’s a way for all the parties involved to have agreement.

Volunteer at your child’s school

Seeing what goes on in the classroom is vital to knowing how many times food is a part of the lesson. You can help provide examples of alternatives for peanut butter birdfeeders or sesame seed art projects.  Also, the staff gets to know you – and how nice you really are!

What makes an outstanding Food Allergy Aware School?

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) follow a written health care plan (provided by your doctor) 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’!

Our school district has done all of the following except for having a school nurse in the building at all times. The middle school my son attended did have an almost-full-time health aide, but the elementary school did not. It still worked with the front office staff becoming thoroughly versed on allergic reactions and how to administer an EpiPen. Good luck to the start of your child’s school year!

  • Donna Farrer

    Dr. Chris Johnson has a book called Keeping Your Kids Out of the Emergency Room. He has a lot of great info and being a peds doc I imagine he’s seen it all! His blog is very informative, chrisjohnsonmd.com. But his book has so many things about how to deal with children’s illnesses and ailments, there is something to be learned on how they affect the young ones, and allergies are right up there!