When Nicole Smith's son Morgan, who was diagnosed with allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, sunflower seeds, and shellfish before he was 2, was ready for preschool, Smith decided she had to take some precautions. The Colorado Springs, Colorado, resident had her son's allergist write a letter to the school, creating a detailed list of what was required to maintain a safe environment for Morgan. This included nut-free and pet-free classrooms. She also stressed the importance of having a school staff trained to look for symptoms of a reaction and administer Morgan's medications when necessary. "Now that Morgan is older, he sits in on the annual meetings we have with the school and offers suggestions, like cleaning the computer keyboard keys with antibacterial wipes before each incoming class, to get rid of any possible food residue," says Smith.
Morgan's school arrangement is written out in what is known as a Section 504 plan. "Section 504 essentially mandates that educational institutions receiving federal funds do not discriminate against children who are disabled or have a life-threatening disorder," explains Anne Muñoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) in Fairfax, Virginia. "It is fairly common for parents of children with peanut anaphylaxis risk to rely on a 504 plan to establish a written agreement between the school and the parents." Every school district has a 504 coordinator, who can help when the parents and the school are nervous about what precautions need to be taken before the child starts the school year. The coordinator can also serve as a mediator when difficulties arise over which rules and procedures need to be in place.
Roberta Kirshbaum, principal of an elementary school in Westchester County, New York, found herself in the middle of a heated debate about legal and appropriate rules for a school with a peanut-allergic child a few years ago. "In the end, as a community, we chose to embrace a caring policy," says Kirshbaum. "Our teachers are 100 percent behind efforts to teach kids to be sensitive to others, and we now do things that are a part of our school culture, such as setting up a 'peanut table' in the cafeteria so that children who have the choice whether to eat peanut products can opt to sit there, rather than isolating the peanut-allergic kids who have no choice."
In Kirshbaum's school, teachers and bus drivers are trained how to use an EpiPen, which is the brand name for injectable epinephrine, the most important medication for a child with severe food allergies. And each year Kirshbaum sends parents a letter explaining the school's policies, which promote "peanut awareness."
Each family will have their own experience with their school, and parents who have smoothed the way for others say working in partnership to devise a mutually acceptable system is the best approach. No matter what, it's important that your school be informed. "Absolutely let your child's school know what your child is allergic to," says Muñoz-Furlong. Even if your child has not had a severe reaction to a food, he or she might if exposed to it again, so informing school staff of what to avoid, and then what to do and whom to call if a reaction should occur, is better for all parties. FAAN offers a Food Allergy Action Plan form that parents of a child with food allergies fill out with the child's doctor for the school; it can be downloaded at www.foodallergy.org/school.html.