It’s back to school time, a busy and anxiety producing time for most parents (and kids). Add a food allergy and the thought of someone else caring for your child, and it’s downright scary, especially for a young child. O is turning 3 this week which is a great age but it means he’s still so young he doesn’t completely understand what food allergies are and he certainly can’t be trusted to keep himself safe all on his own. But AA and I thought that trying preschool was an important step for us (it’s hard to let go when your child has a life-threatening condition) and also an important step for O. We want him to be social and good with other adults and kids so that he can grow up to be a good advocate for himself. That’s really really important to us.
So, like I talked about here, we sent him off to Preschool. There were some important things we did first though and I thought I’d share them for other parents who might be going back to school, or to school for the first time at the Pre-K level. As always, talk with your allergist for the final say if you have questions about food allergies.
1. Take a tour of your school.
Find out what their policies are regarding food and food allergies. At the Preschool level, we felt it was important that the Preschool be peanut and tree nut free because the kids are so little. For us, if it wasn’t peanut and tree nut free, it was off our list. If your little one has another kind of allergy like dairy or eggs, find out if the school has had any experience with that allergy. In a way we are lucky that more and more people are becoming familiar with nut allergies so most schools have some kind of policy on nuts.
2. Schedule your yearly appointment with your allergist.
Have them do any necessary re-testing and talk to them about going back to school. Ask them for advice on what questions to ask, what to look out for etc. And while you’re there, have them renew your EpiPen prescription so you have enough to take to school (always pack TWO!) and have the doctor fill out any necessary paperwork. In our case, there was an allergy action plan. Ours looked kind of like this:
The allergist also gave us another form called the Rescue Mediation Form that authorized use of the EpiPen and Bendryl as well as a rescue inhaler (Albuterol) for asthma. This form is signed by the doctor and provides evidence of a valid prescription as well as tells what doses are appropriate. And then finally we also got an Asthma Action Plan which tells a caregiver what to do for asthma symptoms. I made sure that copies of these forms went both to the school office and to his teachers.
3. Meet the Principal
If you are deciding between schools, I highly recommend scheduling a meeting with the principal before school starts. This really put us at ease that we had chosen the right place for O. Questions we asked included: What is the school policy on food allergies and Epi Pens? What kind of training to teachers and staff have in First Aid? Do teachers receive EpiPen training? Have you had children with food allergies before? Have you ever had an anaphylactic reaction at your school? (Obviously the best answer to this one is no.)
4. Meet the Teacher(s)
Once O had been assigned to a classroom, we scheduled a meeting with his teachers. I emailed the head teacher, introduced myself, and set up a meeting. Make sure you don’t wait til right before the start of the school year to do this, teachers get so busy! This meeting is where you go over the logistics of how to make sure your little one is safe. This is also where you ask what are, in my opinion, the most important questions. And you should trust your gut, if you are not comfortable with an answer or a policy, speak up. At our meeting, we brought O along, we think it’s important that he’s involved in these conversations (even if it’s only peripherally at this age) so that he learns how to talk about food allergies. And we were very pleasantly surprised when we sat down and the teacher had her own list of questions for US! This is a really good sign that you’ve found a conscientious caregiver. Things we talked about at this meeting included:
-Where do you store EpiPens? (They should NEVER be locked up, if your school tells you they have to lock them up by law, that’s not true. You don’t want someone fumbling for keys in an emergency.)
-Do you take EpiPens and Benadryl with you when you leave the classroom? (The answer to this should always be yes. At our school they have a “Go Bag” packed with that kind of thing that they just keep next to the door and always take when they go outside (which is really the only place they ever go). But in most schools this should also include “specials” like gym or art. It’s not enough for the EpiPen to just be in the building, it should be near the child at all times.)
-Have you had EpiPen training? (We brought our training device along and showed them how to use it, they said that was extremely helpful)
-What is the policy on food in the classroom? (just re-confirm the school’s policies)
-What is the policy on birthday treats? (our school only allows fresh cut fruit)
-When do kids wash their hands? (they usually used hand sanitizer but suggested maybe for O’s classroom the kids would wash their hands with soap and water in the morning instead)
Questions they asked us, included:
-What kinds of situations are more dangerous for O?
Our answer: snack time, any crafts involving food or things like the sensory table (sometimes filled with beans etc, and O is also allergic to lentils) and time outside the school (other people bring PB&J to the playground all the time).
-Can he handle acorns, we sometimes use them in craft projects?
A great question that we had to ask our allergist about. Our nurse told us it was fine and that acorns are thought to be really pretty safe for people with tree nut allergies (but you should always ask your allergist). We just asked the teachers to have O wash his hands if he does handle them.
-Is it ok for us to tell the other kids about his allergies?
Another good question and one that has a very individualized answer. We were ok with it but some parents feel that they don’t want their child singled out which is also a valid concern. We thought at this young age that was unlikely and some of the older kids in his class (it’s mixed age up to age 5) could be helpful in keeping an eye out for problems.
-Can he sit next to the other kids at snack time?
We said yes as long as they watched out for danger foods like granola bars. We felt like the social aspect of snack time is important and the teachers stressed, throughout the meeting, how vigilant they are about making sure no one ever shares food.
All in all, after these meetings were really reassuring. We felt like everyone we talked to was on the same page and would make O’s safety a priority. But again, if you aren’t satisfied with the way something is done, speak up. We noticed that the official policy that was sent out to parents said, “The Pre-K classrooms are peanut free, please don’t send food containing nuts such as peanut butter, almond butter or nutella with your child.” We felt like that was confusing and asked them to change it to say, “The Pre-K classrooms are peanut and tree nut free…” and they did!
Don’t forget, when they are little, you are your child’s only and best advocate. Don’t be afraid to be “those parents.” In my experience most people will be understanding and compassionate. How do you handle back to school with food allergies?