As the school year beings for some and approaches for others, now is an excellent time to reflect on the food allergy policies and procedures at your school. As research and information about best practices emerge, schools should know that small changes can have a big impact. Camps may also wish to track these same kind of policy shifts to keep campers safe while in their care next summer.
Why do schools need a food allergy policy?
Schools must create a safe environment for students with life threatening food allergies. Administrators should begin by creating a comprehensive food allergy policy for the entire school or school district. Policies may vary from school to school depending on their experiences and limitations. In fact, allergists are hesitant to suggest blanket recommendations for that reason. Whatever each school decides, the policy and procedures set regarding food allergies need to be
1. widely communicated;
2. easily accessible; and
3. consistently applied and protected.
These policies serve as a baseline for food allergic families to make decisions about additional measures they may need to take in order to keep their child safe.
Where do schools begin and what factors should they consider in regards to their food allergy policies and procedures?
When formulating food allergy policies and procedures, schools should consider some of the following factors:
- Age of students and their cognitive and physical development: Schools may have different policies for students of different ages. For example, elementary schools may forbid a child from carrying his/her own epinephrine auto-injector while a middle and high school may allow that.
- Common risks facing the age group of their students: Are the students allowed to share food without permission? What are the school’s thoughts on classroom parties and celebrations? Do your students commonly face peer pressure or bullying? Are they allowed to snack/eat independently (away from a cafeteria or not during a traditional lunch time)?
- Stock/unassigned epinephrine: In many states, schools are either required or allowed to keep unassigned (or stock) epinephrine on-hand in case of an anaphylactic reaction. That means that if a student, staff, or faculty member has a reaction and does not already have epinephrine prescribed to them and stored at school, the unassigned epinephrine may be used. Consider whether your school should carry this useful medication and who should be in charge of administering it.
- Nursing schedule and availability: Does your school have a full-time nurse? How many students is he or she responsible for looking after?
- How and where to store epinephrine: Is the nurse’s office centrally located or would it be wise to store epinephrine with a trained administrator closer to a lunchroom or classrooms?
- Hand washing: Hand sanitizer does not remove the proteins that can cause a food allergic reaction. Only a scrub with soap and water can do that. Are the students required to wash hands at any point in the day?
- Communication with parents: This piece may not make it into policy, but it should be discussed. Advanced communication with parents regarding upcoming class parties, school celebrations involving food, field trips, and other food-related events allows parents and teachers to make appropriate accommodations to keep their food allergic student safe.
- The classroom versus the lunchroom: How will food allergy policies differ by location within the school? Rules in the classroom regarding food may be very different from rules in the cafeteria. Who will be responsible in which location?
- Field trips: Each school should consider who is responsible for carrying and administering epinephrine when students are away from school. Go over a plan should someone have a severe allergic reaction. Be reminded that epinephrine must be kept at room temperature, so if you are spending time outside in hot or cold weather, epinephrine will need to be temperature controlled. Communicate this plan to teachers and parents so that everyone is on the same page.
- Faculty and staff education: Faculty and staff should be educated and RE-educated about food allergies each year. They must learn to recognize the signs of severe allergic reactions (called anaphylaxis) and what those symptoms might sound like in the words of a young child. [See The Language of Food Allergies for the symptoms and language students may use to describe an allergic reaction.] They need to learn how to respond to an allergic reaction. Understanding the basics of cross-contamination and ingredient label reading, among other lessons, will help protect food allergic students in their classrooms.
Food allergies are often misunderstood. Not only can they cause severe allergic reactions that can be fatal, but they cause a great amount of time, preparation, and anxiety for students and parents alike. This anxiety can hamper a student’s ability to learn. Therefore, it is imperative that schools make every effort to provide a safe environment for learning both academically and socially. With two students in every classroom suffering from food allergies, it is critically important that schools consider how they can best prepare families and teachers to protect these students.