Starting school or going back to school for a child with food allergies can be a stressful event for parents. While we want our children to be safe, we also don’t want a reputation as a crazy-mom or dad. Here are some checklist items to make sure you’ve done all that you can to help get your child off to a safe start. Even though we are a few weeks into the school year, it isn’t too late to do any of these items now.
- Set up a private meeting with you and your child’s teacher. At that meeting, give the teacher a piece of paper that you prepare on the computer or in your own hand writing. List the child’s name and if possible attach a photograph to the paper. If doing it on the computer, go to the “Insert” menu and insert a “picture from file.” Ask the teacher to put it on the wall so that a even a substitute teacher will be able to quickly identify your child. Then list all of the food allergies that affect your child. If they are allergic to “tree nuts” then list each specific nut individually--there is often a lot of confusion about what tree nuts include and the difference between them and peanuts. Also ask the teacher to notify you of all food related events prior to them occurring so that you can send in some safe food treats for your child, such as a peanut-free cupcake for a birthday party to be held in the classroom.
- Ask the school’s nurse to provide you with an Allergy Action Plan template that you can fill out. This plan lists the food allergies and medications that the child should be given. Make sure the school nurse has medications that are not expired and that list the amount needed for your child based upon your child’s weight. Specify the hospital you’d like your child to go to in case of an emergency. For more detailed instructions, you may opt to prepare a 504 plan. Look this up on the Internet for some examples. You may need the help of an attorney for a 504 plan.
- Ask the school’s principal if other personnel at the school are trained in administering Epi-Pens. Normally the teachers and the principal should be trained and should know how to find the Epi-Pen for your child, if the school nurse is not available for some reason. Make sure you go back and question the teacher as to whether he or she knows where the Epi-Pens are stored and how to locate your child's Epi-Pen in case of an emergency.
- Ask the manager of the cafeteria what the procedures are for peanut-free/tree nut-free tables. Ask if they accommodate other allergies at tables such as for dairy or egg. Find out if there is an “emergency” symbol that your child can make/do should they feel like they are having an allergic reaction and need special help. For instance, instead of raising just one hand, perhaps they could put both hands up to indicate to the teacher-on-duty in the cafeteria that they need help fast.
- Ask your local emergency (fire/ambulance) department if the ambulances they drive carry Epi-Pens and Epi-Pen Jrs. Let them know that your child is riding the bus and that the bus driver doesn’t have an Epi-Pen and/or permission to administer it. Ask them how they communicate with the school to identify medical issues in children, if the child is unable to communicate his or herself.
- If you are having a problem doing any of these items above because the personnel are not being respectful, responsive or receptive, then contact a lawyer for a consult. That lawyer may be able to prepare a short letter to send to them so that they know you are serious and so is the food allergy issue. It may cost you a fee of say $60 for the letter--check with the attorney before you take too much of his or her time, and let them know your budget and concerns.
Don’t be shy about contacting school personnel about your child’s food allergies. You are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which is a civil rights law that gives you the right to ask for changes where policies, practices or conditions exclude or disadvantage you or your child. Plus Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 further provides you with rights for food allergies. Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in employment and education in agencies, programs and services that receive federal money. In both the ADA and Section 504, a person with a disability is described as someone who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, or is regarded as having such impairments. Breathing, eating, working and going to school are "major life activities." Asthma and allergies are still considered disabilities under the ADA, even if symptoms are controlled by medication.