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Back to School With Food Allergies – What You Need to Know

Going back to school can be an exciting and stressful time for families, and many may be finding their usual anxiety is heightened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For children with food allergies, many of whom are cautious already, returning to school this year may require further planning, vigilance and checking up on federal guidelines. There is no cure for food allergies, and if a child with a serious allergy is exposed to a trigger food, they may experience an adverse reaction, the most severe being anaphylactic shock. Other reactions can include mild hives, swelling, vomiting and diarrhea. Preventing such an exposure is crucial to ensure your child has a safe educational environment. 

Just how widespread are food allergies? Approximately 8 percent of children in the United States are affected, or about two students per classroom, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The good news is such exposures often can be prevented with strong preparation and communication between parents and educators. 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 occurs

Be aware that eight foods account for most serious allergic reactions in Americans of all ages: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts.

Know the Federal Guidelines and Use Them

Schools, both public and many private, are legally required to ensure that children can 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. The Food Allergy Research and Education organization provides access to federal and state guidelines, and can help you understand your child’s rights. 

Teach School Staff How to Avoid an Emergency

Before school starts, parents should consult at length with their pediatrician or allergist to ensure they have an updated allergy action plan on file for their child. Parents should then have a meeting, whether in person or virtually, with the teachers, administrators and school nurse before classes start, to explain what your child is allergic to and how to respond. If your child will be receiving school-provided meals, be sure to speak with the staff in those areas. Provide easily accessible contact information so caregivers can call you if they are unsure about a particular food. When in-person classes resume, and depending on your child’s age, they should be able to carry their emergency medications on them as well.

Specific Steps to Avoid Emergency Allergic Situations

This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, pay extra attention to the public health protocols being enforced at schools. For instance, the school may be implementing a “no food-sharing or trading” rule, and not holding birthday or holiday celebrations to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Regular hand washing may be more enforced, along with more thorough disinfection of eating areas.

However, don’t let your child’s food allergy get overlooked. Teachers and administrators need to know that hand sanitizer does not remove food allergens; soap and water are best. 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 paramedics if an emergency occurs.

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