Back to School With Food Allergies – What You Need to Know
With the start of school looming, our to-do lists grow by the day. We have backpacks and lunchboxes and school clothes to buy, schedules to arrange and extracurricular activities to plan.
If you’re like me and your child has a severe food allergy, there’s something else we have to do: make sure we’ve prepared everything our children may need to prevent and treat an anaphylactic reaction.
There are three things that you must do, and they rely heavily on good communication between you and your child’s caregivers. You must prepare your child’s teachers to:
- Avoid an allergic reaction
- Recognize an emergency situation if it occurs
- Respond appropriately if an allergic emergency were to occur
Be Sure You Know the Law
In the early days of dealing with my son’s allergy, I was hesitant to ask others to accommodate his needs because I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. It’s important to note that when it comes to your child’s school, they aren’t doing you a favor by helping you manage your child’s food allergies. Employees are required to do so for the health and safety of our children.
Federal law (Section 504 under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) provides protections for individuals with handicaps or disabilities to ensure inclusion in any program or activity that receives federal funding or assistance. All public schools, and many private schools, receive federal assistance and are required to uphold these protections.
A life-threatening food allergy qualifies a child for protection under this law. (A handicap/disability is defined as a physical condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities. In the case of food-allergic children, these life activities are eating and breathing.)
The school is required to ensure that children who are covered by this law are able to fully participate along with their peers in the school’s day-to-day activities and curriculum. Children who require special accommodations from the school should have what is known as a 504 plan - a written management plan explaining how the school will accommodate the child’s food allergy.
Ask your child’s school about a 504 plan, or visit the Department of Education to learn more.
Be Sure You’ve Taught Others How to Avoid an Emergency
Priority number one in managing food allergies is learning how to avoid an emergency. Over the years of caring for your child, you’ve learned which foods he or she can and cannot tolerate safely. The challenge for you as school begins is to educate caregivers on your child's specific needs.
The better you communicate, the better the school can accommodate your child’s needs. The following ideas will help you communicate the important information:
- Plan a meeting with all teachers and caregivers that will be responsible for your child. Explain what your child is allergic to and what they can and cannot eat.
- If your school employs a nurse or if your child will be receiving school-provided meals, be sure to meet with the staff in those areas.
- Provide easily accessible contact information so caregivers can call you if they are unsure about a particular food.
- Create a plan for how the school will handle special circumstances, such as birthday or holiday celebrations, or when other parents bring food for the class.
- Consider providing shelf-stable treats that can be stored in the classroom for your child to eat in place of food provided to the rest of the class. For example, if your child can’t eat cupcakes, leave their favorite packaged snack for the teacher to give them.
- Consider having your child wear a medical identification bracelet to identify their allergies. This serves as a reminder for teachers and gives relevant information to emergency medical personnel if an emergency occurs.
- Ask your child’s teachers to avoid allergen-containing food in the curriculum. As an example, for my child with an egg allergy, I know that two specific weeks will be a challenge: Dr. Seuss celebrations where preschools often make green eggs and ham, and Easter celebrations where they may dye Easter eggs.
- Ask teachers to enforce a “no food-sharing or trading” rule.
- Ask teachers to practice good hand-washing before and after eating. Be sure they know that hand sanitizer does not remove allergens. Soap and water are best. Hand wipes may be used if soap and water aren’t available.
- Ask teachers to avoid cross-contamination of foods, utensils and eating surfaces. Ask them to disinfect eating areas before and after meals.
- If your child is receiving meals provided by the school, determine whether school meal substitutions are necessary. You may need to provide documentation from your doctor in order to develop a 504 plan for the school to accommodate your child’s dietary needs.
Check out Part 2 of this blog to learn how to prepare your child’s caregivers to recognize and respond appropriately in an emergency situation.
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