For food allergy families, navigating school — whether for toddlers or elementary and beyond — is very much a big part of school choice and school preparation. It is an extra layer to consider and, quite frankly, does require initiative and involvement above and beyond the more common school experience.
My family’s food allergy journey began when my eldest daughter was 18 months old. An exposure to hummus revealed a severe anaphylactic food allergy to sesame. Years later we also discovered an allergy to tree nuts. All of that to say, I have dealt with “food allergies and school” for several years.
So where do you start, and what bases should you cover? I have divided the answers to these questions into two sections: reaction and prevention.
The best way to understand your school’s policy of food allergies and its plan to treat your child should a reaction occur is to ASK QUESTIONS! Never ever in a million gazillion years assume your school — as wonderful as it may be — completely understands food allergy protocol, best practices, and so forth. Get answers to all of your questions.
- Does your child’s school have an on-site nurse? If so, what are his or her hours and accessibility? If not, who will administer the anti-histamines and/or epinephrine injectors if needed?
- How many of the staff are trained to identify an allergic reaction? Trained to administer medications, if needed?
- What is the food allergy plan, that is, what is the step-by-step protocol for how the nurse and/or teacher is notified of the allergic reaction, who administers the medicines, who notifies 911, who notifies parents?
- Where are the medications stored? Are they in a locked container? If so, who has access to this locked container? Is that person always readily available to access the stored and locked medications? Are the medications stored in a environment conducive to maintain the quality of the medication?
- Following up on that train of thought: Are the medications stored in the classroom? If so, do the medications travel with the child for special classes (think music, physical education, on the playground)?
- What is the food allergy reaction plan when the child is out of the normal routine: special days and events, field trips, etc.?
Based on my experience, this aspect of food allergy care is often the most neglected and receives the most pushback. However, as most any food allergy parent can tell you, the prevention plan is just as important as the reaction plan. The goal is, after all, to prevent an allergic reaction at school! We increase our odds of this when we are as proactive as reasonably possible.
I completely understand that it is never possible to protect my child 100 percent at school. There is always risk. Yet, my daughter has a bi-phasic anaphylaxis reaction — with so much swelling — to her food allergen. Any exposure is serious. Thus, I take the prevention plan very seriously.
The following are the questions and steps we take to ensure her school environment is as safe as possible.
- What is the classroom food allergy policy? Will your school’s administration allow for your child’s classroom to be allergen free? If so, how will the administration and teachers enforce that? If they will not make the classroom allergen free, what is the plan to keep the food allergen away from your child?
- How often are the children eating in the room: snack time, special parties, celebrations, food as rewards, food used in learning activities? This not only applies to your child’s homeroom teacher, but it also applies to the music class, the library, and so forth. What food is part of the celebrations and/or curriculum in every classroom your child will step foot in? How and when will you be notified of these special events and celebrations? You need to be aware of every instance your child will be offered food — and plan accordingly.
- What school-wide events, functions, and special days include communal eating, food activities, etc.? For instance, my daughter’s school hosts an art field day of sorts where children travel throughout the day to various other classrooms enjoying all types of art activities. It is such a fun day! But every child in every classroom brings a packed lunch from home. While my daughter’s class was safe, the classes she visited after lunch were not. Dozens and dozens of kids had eaten in those rooms with lunch crumbs here and there. As crazy unlikely as it sounds, she experienced an allergic reaction due to a trace exposure in another classroom and spent the next six hours in the emergency room, and missed the next day of school.
- Does the cafeteria serve any food that contains the allergen? Even if your child never plans to eat in the cafeteria or food service program, will others in his or her class be eating this food? If so, what is the plan to keep your child safe during and after lunch (hand washing, etc.)? What is the policy for food allergy students eating in the cafeteria? Is there a system in place to alert cafeteria workers and monitors that your child has a food allergy, should not have access to certain foods? Are the cafeteria employees and monitors able to identify an allergic reaction, familiar with the reaction plan, etc.? Where will your child sit in the cafeteria?
- How will substitute teachers (in any class, including PE, music, etc.) be aware of your child’s medical condition? Are they trained and informed regarding identifying allergic reactions and the school’s food allergy reaction plan?
- Aside from activities that include food, focus also on materials and products used in the classroom. For instance, will egg cartons or milk jugs be used for crafts for kids with egg and milk allergies? In our case, sesame oil is included in bird seed, make-ups, lotions, cleaners, cosmetics, etc. So we have to ask about these products in the classrooms.
- How does your school promote inclusion for food allergy kids? Will your child ever be isolated from an event, activity, lesson, etc. because of the food allergy? How does the school educate other students on inclusion and anti-bullying specifically in regards to food allergy issues?
The answers to these questions will help you understand all the ins and outs of the school’s philosophy about treating and preventing allergic reactions — and equip you with the info you need to fill in the gaps, ask for changes, and/or advocate for your child.
I also recommend visiting the Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) website. It not only contains helpful information about navigating school, but also provides up-to-date food allergy resources.
The Fort Worth Moms Blog hosts 20 Neighbor Groups via Facebook, including the Fort Worth Food Allergy Moms. These groups are free to join and offer online and offline opportunities to build relationships and gain resources from other moms in the area.
Important information and very thorough checklist! My (slightly older) kids have very serious food allergies and I’ve never even considered some of the things mentioned in your prevention plan.
Thank you my oldest is going to Kinder and has severe allergies! This is so helpful!!