There's little that strikes fear in the heart of parents of children with food allergies like the start of a new school year. That was certainly the case for me five years ago when I packed the backpack of my son, who is allergic to nuts, loaded up his inhaler, Benadryl and EpiPen for the first week of kindergarten.
He'd already had two accidental ingestions at preschool that required a mad dash for the Benadryl and Epi. As a newbie to the tight rules and regulations of the public school system, I wasn't sure what to expect. What I found was understanding and compassion coupled with seemingly inflexible and illogical rules. At my son's school, this meant having his medicines locked in a container and stored in a room that could be accessed by only a handful of staffers.
I tried to calmly express that they could not get Ty's medicines to him quickly enough if he went into anaphylactic shock. When repeated pleas to keep his medicine in the classroom failed, I went where no parent wants to go. I threatened to sue the school if something happened to my son. Some changes were made. When my son had his first reaction at school, everyone involved was glad about the changes. We've had largely good experiences since.
Let's be realistic. When dealing with food allergies, especially multiple allergies, you can't expect the school to drop everything in favor of forming a cocoon around your child. For every negative story I've heard regarding allergy policies at schools, I've heard positive experiences, too.
Here are a few tips, resources and strategies that I've found helpful in keeping my now 10-year-old son safe without overburdening staff, students or their families:
- Meet with the school's principal, school nurse, administrators and teacher(s) at least a week before school starts. Call ahead to see if you can bring your child to meet his teacher and cafeteria staff before the school year. You can ask questions and discuss any concerns you or your child have at this time.
- Fill out and bring to the school all of the necessary doctor and consent forms, and properly label and package any medications prior to the first day of school.
- Encourage your child's teacher to keep a second set of emergency medications in his or her classroom.
- Practice different scenarios with your child. Tell him to NEVER swap food with classmates and to never accept food from anyone unless you have told him that it is safe.
- Work with the school to establish peanut- or allergy-free zones in the cafeteria and classroom. I worked with my son's school to set up its first-ever "peanut-free" lunch tables. They were washed down before and after lunch service each day. My son's friends could sit with him as long as they had no peanut-containing products with them. Maria Kennedy, whose 7-year-old daughter is allergic to peanuts, arranged to have her daughter sit at the peanut-free end of a table that is wiped down by her teacher. Kennedy also packs wipes in her daughter's lunch box so that she can wipe the table herself.
- Send your child to school with a visual reminder of his allergies, if not daily, at least for the first week of school. We ordered bright yellow stickers with my son's allergies clearly spelled out and placed the stickers on his backpack, lunch box and shirt the first week or two of school. He also wore them for class celebrations, birthday parties and field trips.
- Send safe nonperishable treats with your child for birthday, holiday and other special occasions. I send a box of individually wrapped Oreos, Dum-Dums and fruit snacks to be kept in my son's classroom. That way he never feels left out.
- Get involved in the menu of any food-related activities in your child's class. Tell the teacher that it is imperative that you be notified in advance of any activities involving food.
- Craft a letter about your child's life-threatening allergies to be shared with your child's teacher, substitute teachers, administrators and any classmates' parents. Volunteer to provide extra wipes and hand sanitizer that can be used as needed to clean hands, tables and equipment.
- Provide a variety of snack and lunch options so that your child doesn't feel left out or get bored with his choices.
- Contact your school's PTA president and ask if you can have five minutes of the group's time at its first meeting. Use the time to briefly explain the significance of your child's allergies and offer suggestions for spreading awareness at the school. My son's school now hangs a note outside each classroom that alerts visitors to allergies in the classroom.
- Many kindergarten classes use Play-Doh, a gluten-containing product that is off limits to children with Celiac disease. Make your own gluten-free batch to be used in the classroom.