Taking Food Allergies Back to School

This article first appeared in the AllergyMoms Newsletter August 18, 2007.

The weeks before your child returns to school after summer break can be very hectic even for the average family, but parents of children with food allergies have even more details to attend to. A new school year often ushers in new administrators, teachers, and other staff members, meaning that you, as a parent, must provide your child’s caregivers with the tools and information they need to protect your child. Even returning staff members may need a refresher course.

Getting a jump on the first day of school

To ensure that the upcoming school year starts off right (and safe) for your child, the following checklist can help you make sure you haven’t forgotten anything:

  • Schedule a visit with your child’s allergist to obtain any notes and medical releases needed for school. (You may need to contact the school to ask about any forms you need to fill out to allow the school to dispense medications or allow your child to carry his or her own medications.)
  • Check your medication supply, including expiration dates to ensure you have sufficient quantities of fresh meds.
    Prepare or update a custom food allergy emergency plan for your child.
  • Schedule a meeting with the school nurse, administrator, your child’s teacher, cafeteria workers, and other caregivers (such as coaches) to review food allergy policies and procedures, including what to do in the event of a severe reaction.
  • Make sure the school has sufficient quantities of your child’s medications on hand, that they are stored in a convenient location, and that your child’s caregivers know where they are.

Reviewing the food allergy policy

An effective food allergy policy leaves no questions unanswered. As you review the food allergy policy, make sure it answers the following questions:

  • Who will train substitute teachers (if applicable)?
  • Do medications need to be sent in every day? (If your child rides a bus, this could be an issue.)
  • Where do students eat their lunch and snacks? (It’s best to keep food out of the classroom, if possible.)
  • Who provides the snacks?
  • Will my child be eating at an allergy-free table? (I recommend some type of special seating arrangements and increased supervision for younger children with severe allergies, but older children can be weaned from such tables.)
  • Is the cafeteria staff well educated in food preparation and serving procedures?
  • Who is in charge of cleaning the tables? (Tables should be thoroughly wiped down with a household cleaning solution prior to each lunch shift. Obviously, your child should not be required to clean the tables.)
  • How and when are students to wash their hands? (The school should require that all students wash their hands before and after eating.)
  • How are field trips to be handled? (This needs to cover the field trip destination, what your child will eat, and who will carry and administer medications.)
  • Will any science or craft projects involve foods, and if so, how will they be handled?
  • Who’s in charge if your child is involved in after-school activities and where will the medications be stored?

Reviewing the emergency plan

Because a food allergy reaction can go from bad to worse very quickly, everyone should know what to do well in advance of any emergency. Your child’s food allergy emergency action plan should cover the following:

  • Where should your child go for help?
  • Who should accompany your child to the nurse or office? (For older children, having a classmate look out for your child is a great idea. Check out the Be a PAL Program for details.)
  • What should be done if your child has a reaction in the lunch room, classroom, or gym?
  • Who’s responsible for calling the nurse?
  • If the nurse is not present, who’s next in line for action?
  • When should the person in charge call 911?

Tip: Consider staging a drill for a severe allergic reaction. A brief rehearsal or two can ensure that everyone knows the role they play, that the medications are accessible, and that the people administering the medications are able to do it properly.

Many parents report that their children with food allergies are able to make it through school year after year without incident, but that is never an excuse for not remaining vigilant. Even if your child had a reaction-free year last year, you should schedule a follow-up meeting with administrators and staff every year to thank them, celebrate your past success, and review your plan.

I wish you and your family a very safe, happy, and educational school year!