When you're the parent of a child with food allergies, sending them to school is nerve-wracking, scary, and fraught with danger. When I sent my son to pre-K that first day, I felt like I was sending him into a minefield, where anything could go off without warning. It didn't matter that I'd met with the school administration and his teachers — it still felt like a gamble. My son's allergy to dairy had unpredictable repercussions, and it terrified me. Since then, I've learned a lot about how to prepare your child with food allergies for school, and I'm continually learning where I can improve.
If your child with food allergies is just starting school, you need to have a game plan ready with the administration. You'll need (at the very least) an individualized healthcare plan (IHP) and an emergency action plan (EAP) in place before your child even steps foot in the school. The next step is devising your child's 504 plan, which requires extensive documentation. This plan is a part of the Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) addendum to the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, noted MyKidsFoodAllergies.com. It states that all children, regardless of disability, or in this case, a severe food allergy that could potentially affect a major life function (like breathing, hearing, etc.), must be given equal access to education. In doing so, special accommodations may need to be made, according to the Department of Education.
Your first step in learning how to prepare your child with food allergies for school is to get all of your documentation ready. You'll need a signed letter from your doctor explaining not only the allergy, but also the reaction. Make sure it's on the office's letterhead and includes a brief note on a prescription pad. Trust me on this. Make multiple copies, but keep the originals.
Find out if your child's school has active training at dealing with children with food allergies, too. If not, there are great resources you can point them to which can really help, noted Kids with Food Allergies. Talk to your child and go over with them how they can keep themselves safe. Enforce how important it is that they don't share or trade food. Make sure that they know to have a grown-up vet all their food before they eat it, and go through the Epi-Pen procedure with them if they're old enough to self-carry. You'll also need to teach your child what symptoms of exposure to watch out for, just in case. Will their lips tingle? Will it be harder to breathe? They need to know how to get immediate help.
Tell the teachers, the administration, the school nurse, and uncomfortable though it may be, the other parents of the students in your child's class. After you've made the IHP and EAP, make copies of those, and make sure they're clearly posted in the classroom and easily accessible to the nurse and in the office. Keep a copy for yourself. Make sure you witness the nurse, principal, and teachers sign it.
When it comes down to it, all of these people have a shared responsibility to keep your child safe. There will be a meeting before the school year begins so that you might strategize how to keep your child safe, and how to disseminate this information to others. In my kids' school in New York City, they send a letter and an email to the parents of the students in the classroom before school even begins. It's incredibly helpful.
Each child's plan will be slightly different based on the allergy and the severity of the reaction. Parent A.J. Vey tells Romper, "My son has an airborne anaphylactic response to peanuts. His classroom had to be specially cleaned before he attended, and he was granted a paraprofessional to help keep him safe. The school was not a nut-free school, so he had to eat lunch in the classroom and avoid the lunchroom at drop-off and pick-up." She says that in her IHP and EAP, his paraprofessional would carry a double Epi Pen, and treats could not be brought into the classroom unless they were previously vetted. "The school was amazing and so were the students," Vey says. "My son was coached by us and his para about safety and the signs of a problem, but some of the parents were downright nasty."
This is something I've dealt with as well. Parents are affronted that you ask their child to not bring in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in their lunch. They get even more angry when they're told they can't bring in homemade cookies or cupcakes. I'll be honest, there have been some really ugly occurrences, but mostly, parents are just very concerned for my kid, which is heartening. Thankfully, schools are getting really good at this, and they know how to prepare your child with food allergies for school maybe even better than you do at this point — which is how it should be. Take the help where you can, and know that you have a plan in place should anything happen.