It’s hard to believe we’re in the final weeks of summer here in Northern Michigan and preparing for our children to start back up with school again after Labor Day. In many parts of the country, kids have already gone back to school. With these thoughts in mind, I thought it would be helpful for all parents of children with food allergies, to discuss how I prepare my boy’s school (ie. principal, new teacher, administration, and classmates parents) for a safe school environment. I have to add this is a “general overview” of how I work with the school to ensure a safe and productive school year for my children. I have refined this process over the last 6 years and this is just a summary.
Since our oldest son is now going into 3rd grade I somewhat have my “Back to School Process” refined. Our youngest will be entering first grade this fall. I start this process each spring by scheduling usually a meeting with our school principal to discuss the upcoming school year and how we can work together to ensure the safety of my boys while at school. I ask for teacher recommendations for the following school year and we discuss what teacher he and I feel may best meet the needs of my boy’s “unofficial 504 plan.” Since our boys are in a private parochial school, we do not have the legal need to have a 504 plan. Thankfully our principal was an administrator in the public school system for many years and is knowledgeable about how this process works to ensure the utmost safety of our children during the school day. At the end of the meeting last spring our principal and I decided to touch base via email in June to discuss teacher options for my first grader since there was going to be a new hire.
Now that we are 3 weeks out from the first day of school I have not only communicated with the principal again but with the office manager. I have to note, it is crucial to have a wonderful relationship with the staff who run the office and essentially the “nuts and bolts” of the school. I always approach the school by stating that “we can work together” and put lots of the responsibility on myself and my boys to educate others at the school instead of making threatening demands. This will get you nowhere and you will not build an alliance with any of the staff if you approach food allergies in a threatening manner! It’s important to “Kill everyone with kindness.” I know it’s a stressful situation because your child’s safety is at the hands of someone other than yourself during the day. You have to put your emotions aside, and work with the school administration from a “Team perspective.”
Ok, I got off on a bit of a tangent…now that I have reached out to the principal again and scheduled another meeting to discuss accommodations for my boy’s classrooms for this school year (ie. nut free classroom, signage, note home to parents discussing there is a child in the class with food allergy, table sanitizing procedures, staff epi-pen training, lunchroom procedure, emergency action plan procedure, etc.), it’s also important to contact your child’s future teachers to schedule an in-person appointment to review everything. I forgot to add that I also reached out to each teacher about 6 weeks ago to let them know that my child will be in their classroom next fall and they have life-threatening food allergies. I asked them if they would be available a few weeks before school starts to sit down with me and discuss classroom safety procedures, emergency action plan, etc.
It is crucial to schedule an in-person meeting with the teachers. Depending on your relationship with administration you may or may not want to have the principal and administrators present at the meetings with the teachers. Since we are at a very small school, I do not feel the need to have administration present every fall when I meet with the teachers. However, each school may have a different policy and it’s important to know what approach works best for your individual situation. I have to note, if there is a new teacher at the school hopefully the principal has discussed food allergies with the teacher prior to your initial meeting. If not, I may consider having the principal present at this meeting.
In a nutshell, when I meet with each teacher I come extremely prepared with 2 red folders. Each folder has my child’s name written on the outside of it in bold letters, a picture of my child and the words, “FOOD ALLERGY INFORMATION.” One folder is for the teacher, another similar folder will be for a “Substitute Teacher.” In the folder I have a few simple handouts ie. Food allergy checklist, food allergy facts, teacher and family’s responsibilities, safe snack list, and of course each child’s individual “Food Allergy Action Plan” which is to be posted in a visible spot somewhere in the classroom next to epi-pens. I also have this posted in the main office and lunchroom. So to review, I have a total of 6 epi-pens in the school for each child. Each epi-pen bag also has several Benadryl chewable tablets.
I will also give the teach a gallon sized zip lock bag with non-perishable food for each child in case their lunch should be compromised (ie. milk gets spilled on their packed lunch). I also offer to be in charge and organize of all classroom parties and discuss with the teacher the possibilities of limiting snacks during parties to fruits and veggies since they are much healthier. Usually the teachers are completely on board with this since they don’t want students to have too much sugar during the day. Also, my boy’s friends LOVE my vegan cupcakes and I usually offer to make these for classroom parties.
After meeting with my boy’s teachers I always meet separately with the office staff to review everything, restock epi-pens, hang up emergency action plans, etc. Also, I have a template letter that I have used in the past that I send to the principal for editing that will get sent to all of the parents of students in my boy’s classrooms prior to the first day of school. This letter basically explains the severity of food allergies and informs them there is a student in their child’s class with a life-threatening food allergy. It is one page and talks about the importance of telling your child that food allergies, although very serious, they do not make the child any different from your child with regards to enjoying sports, school, friends, etc. The kids are no different and should not be treated any different from other kids.
Moreover, I ALWAYS make it a point to speak to the janitorial staff and discuss proper sanitization of the lunchroom tables. Our principal does a wonderful job of training all of the staff members and highlighting the importance of sanitization procedures in the lunchroom to prevent cross-contamination. We are very LUCKY I might add. I cannot stress enough how important it is to have an excellent relationship with your administration!
This was a very brief overview of my pre-school preparation to ensure a safe school year. I hope this is helpful to you and good luck getting ready for a wonderful new year of school for your children!