The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) came out with a statement in favor of in-person schooling for children wherever schools can do so safely. In it, they cite the importance of school on child and adolescent mental health and academic engagement as well as the lower rate of transmission and contraction of the coronavirus. [Read the AAP’s full statement here.]. The AAP’s statement also offers guidance to schools about how they might resume in-person education while protecting students as much as possible.
In May 2020, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) also published guidance about schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, AllergyStrong co-signed a letter urging the CDC to balance their guidance with the concerns of life-threatening health conditions facing students including food allergies – which they did. [Read the CDC’s updated guidance here.}
Both the AAP and CDC recommended that students eat meals in the classroom rather than the cafeteria in order to promote social distancing and limit contact between classes (cohorts) and grades. And, both AAP and CDC mention the need to be cognizant of food allergies in that scenario.
How do you bring food into the classroom safely?
The AAP and CDC guidance leaves many parents wondering how can teachers, staff and administrators help protect their students from food allergic reactions while following this guidance?
1. Enforce a “No Sharing” food policy.
This must be strict and plainly stated to protect classmates from food allergic reaction which can be serious.
2. Wash hands.
This is doubly important in the age of COVID. But unlike a virus, food allergens are not eliminated by hand sanitizer. Hand washing with good-old soap and water is what is recommended to prevent cross-contamination and cross-contact with food protein that can cause a severe reaction.
3. Cleaning shared surfaces.
It is critical to clean common surfaces (again doubly so with the coronavirus at play) to prevent accidental cross-contact and protect students with food allergies. Cleaning with soap and water is best.
4. Review symptoms of an allergic reaction.
It is imperative for teachers and classroom staff to re-familiarize themselves with the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction as well as how a child might describe those symptoms [Read, The Language of a Food Allergic Reaction for more information.].
5. Know how to respond to an emergency.
Minutes matter during a food allergic reaction. Severe reactions, called anaphylaxis send patients to the hospital and can be fatal. Review a student’s 504 plan and any Emergency Action Plans available. Know where epinephrine auto-injectors are stored, how to use them and WHEN to use them.
6. Take advantage of the stock epinephrine program.
Under the School Access to Epinephrine Emergency Act, also referred to as the Stock or Unassigned Epinephrine Act, schools are allowed to keep on-hand epinephrine auto-injectors that are not prescribed to a particular patient for use in emergencies. This program is available in 49 states and is used to save the life of any student, teacher or staff member having an allergic reaction regardless of whether they have epinephrine on file. Up to 25% of stock epinephrine use in schools is with people who have no history of diagnosed food allergies.
What can parents do to protect their children?
1. Establish/Review the student’s 504 plan.
Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act protects a student’s access to equal education and academic success while preserving safety. Provisions in a 504 plan for a student with food allergies might include class-wide hand washing, a voluntary refrain from bringing allergens into the classroom, communication with parents about allergens, or approval for a student to carry his/her own epinephrine auto-injectors. Now is the perfect time to work with your school to establish a written 504 plan for your food allergic child should you feel they need it. [Read Kids With Food Allergies Sample Section 504 Plans for Managing Food Allergies for more information.]
2. Practice how to respond to situations with food with your child.
Because eating may be done in the classroom, a child’s peers may have questions or comments about his/her food allergy. Practice answering these questions with your child so they feel comfortable and confident to handle anything that comes their way. [Read Armed with Words: Teens and Food Allergies to get your conversation started.]
3. Review symptoms of an allergic reactions with your child.
It is critical that everyone with food allergies know the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction. Teach these symptoms in an age-appropriate way so as not to scare younger children. Let kids know that these symptoms typically appear soon after eating and tell them to speak up (even interrupting a teacher) if they are concerned they are having an allergic response. [Read: React? Act! to help teach this important lesson.]
4. When age-appropriate, demonstrate how to carry/use epinephrine auto-injector.
Carrying an auto-injector is a big responsibility and a big relief to some children. Teaching kids how to carry their epinephrine auto-injector (always have it with you, don’t let your friends play with it, etc) and how to use it is key. In fact, invite one or two close friends over and demonstrate how to use the auto-injector with the trainer or firing off an old one on an orange or grapefruit will also help protect your child should an emergency arise. We’ve adapted an old medical school mantra from my father-in-law for food allergies, “If you think you need to use the auto-injector, you DO need to use it!” Remember, administer epinephrine and go to the hospital immediately for further treatment and monitoring.