If your child is one of the growing number of kids with food allergies, you probably worry every day when she goes off to school that she could have a serious reaction. You can help put your mind at ease by working with the school to educate teachers and staff on how to keep your child safe, and how to respond in an emergency.
Establishing Strong Lines of Communication
Currently, as many as one in every 13 kids has a food allergy, according to Food Allergy and Research Education (FARE). In severe cases, food allergies can be life-threatening, making it important to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
Communication with the school administration is key to protecting your child, says Sherry W. Langston, APRN, PNP-BC, a pediatric nurse practitioner who runs the Food Allergy Aid group in New Orleans, LA.
Langston knows the stress that comes from worrying about food allergies — she herself suffers from them, as do her two sons. As a result, she’s gotten very good at reaching out to schools — and anyone else who spends time with her children — to be sure they are prepared to intervene quickly and effectively if her kids’ have a reaction.
Disclosing a Food Allergy
It’s never too soon to start the conversation about your child’s allergies. “A meeting with the school nurse and/or administration should certainly take place at the beginning of the school year to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that policies/protocols are in place,” Langston says. “The child’s teachers should also be informed of the allergies and know the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction, as well as how to administer epinephrine.”
“Emergency Action Plans (a plan detailing exactly what to look for and how to respond) are a perfect way to have the child’s plan in place. This form is completed by her allergist and is available on the FARE website for printing,” she says.
Understanding the School’s Policies
Keep in mind that every school has its own policies in place on how they deal with food allergies. It’s important to avoid making assumptions about how things are done, according to Anne Kolsky, RN, who works at Richfield Middle School in Richfield, Minn. She says that at her school, the parent or guardian provides health information, including information about food allergies, in writing at the beginning of the school year.
“Medications that are needed (i.e., Epipen) are either stored in the Health Services Office or carried by the student. Either way, a parent/guardian and health care practitioner must sign to give permission to be carried or stored and given as prescribed,” Kolsky says. [sic]
The cafeteria is also notified by the guardians of any special needs. “Laws are changing in Minnesota, and our schools are now allowed to have EpiPen stations (a designated spot where EpiPens containing child and adult doses are readily accessible in an emergency), near places where students might need it, such as the cafeteria.” She says her own school doesn’t have this yet, but they are in the process of adding such a station.
Questions to Ask
To determine exactly how your school handles food allergies, it helps to pose some basic questions to the nurse and/or other administrators, including:
What protocols exist for handling emergency situations (who will administer epinephrine?)
How are snacks and lunches handled? (Are snacks and lunch provided or are they sent from home?)
If there is no nurse, or the nurse isn’t available, who will handle an emergency?
What forms are necessary to make sure that your child has an Emergency Action Plan in place?
If your child goes on a field trip, who will make sure she brings her emergency medications?
Does your child require a 504 Plan to provide special accommodations for her situation? Children with food allergies have coverage under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so you may need to work with the school to get this paperwork in place. You can find out more about 504 Plans here.
Closing Any Gaps
If your school does not have a nurse, and the school staff is not familiar with administering life-saving treatments such as epinephrine (the medicine contained in an EpiPen), Langston suggests that you offer to train the staff yourself. If you aren’t comfortable doing this, you can talk to your allergist or a food allergy consultant in your area. There are also educational materials that are designed for training purposes that may be ordered online through websites like FARE.
Read the next part of this series here: A Parent’s Guide to Allergies: Talking to Your Child
Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). Accessed webpage Nov. 5, 2014. FARE.
Kolsky, Anne, RN, Richfield Middle School, Richfield, Minn. Langston. Email interview, Nov. 4, 2014.
Sherry W. Langston, APRN, PNP-BC, New Orleans, La. Email interview, Nov. 3, 2014.