August may be the dog days of summer, but anyone with a child knows, it’s also primetime for “Back to School” prep. There are notebooks and pencils to buy. New clothes and shoes to purchase. There’s the (sometimes in vain) attempt to re-establish healthy schedules and routines that may have gone astray over the summer months. For families dealing with food allergies or other chronic health conditions, there also comes an assortment of medical appointments and paperwork to get completed and ready ahead of time.
This year, however, the coronavirus has added some new twists to the August routine you may have grown accustomed to. Now we’re trying to figure out what Back-to-School during a pandemic looks like. Your local school district may be releasing plans, then modifying and releasing updated plans. There are a lot more questions to navigate this year and the August routine that we’ve become comfortable with no longer applies. The following items are certainly not an exhaustive list, but they should help you get focused on some ideas that you may not have considered previously.
Review That 504 Plan and Be Prepared to Review it Often!
If this is not your first August of prepping for a return to the classroom, you may be familiar with the process of developing a 504 plan in conjunction with school officials and input from your family’s allergist. If you’re not familiar with it, a 504 plan is a formal, legal document that outlines the agreed-upon reasonable accommodations the school will make in order to keep your food allergic child safe during the school year. It’s like an allergy action plan with legal backing.
Even if you’ve opted not to pursue such a formal legal document in the past, you have had action plans signed by your allergist and submitted to the proper school staff. Maybe year to year, this plan starts looking a lot like the year before. You had a system that worked, so why not just renew with some tweaks. Right? Okay, but this year is a little different. This year there will be new considerations, and those considerations may evolve as the year goes on and the school’s approach to in-person learning changes. Work with your team to include that the plans will be re-evaluated if/when there are meaningful changes to how in-person instruction is being offered.
As school districts map out a plan that balances socialization, education, and social distancing, some are considering a shift from meals served in a cafeteria setting to snacks/lunch eaten within the classroom environment. For some families, this shift will be outside the usual protocol for allergy management. Your previous 504 arrangements may have included stipulations that the classroom remains food-free. While that’s not necessarily a component of every plan, it may be part of yours. Have a conversation with your allergist before you sit down with the school to assess how this may impact your allergic child and what reasonable accommodations may look like in this new environment. If you haven’t previously considered a food-free classroom, have that talk with your allergist anyway. This isn’t to suggest you shouldn’t be open to this type of arrangement, just that you talk with the medical team that knows your child specifically to ascertain how this full-time shift may impact your specific child.
Nurse’s Office in a Time of COVID-19?
Allergic students are quite familiar with the nurse’s office at their respective schools, hopefully not because they’ve had a reaction, of course! The school nurse may be your point of contact when it comes to allergy management plans. Their office may be where paperwork is maintained. They may be the ‘home base’ for your child’s auto-injector and other medications during the school day. They may also be a little bit busier than previous year as they take on responsibilities relating to the pandemic. The nurse’s office may even be staffed with additional personnel (full-time, part-time or per diem) this year.
Understand what changes, if any, this will mean for the way your child’s allergy management needs are met while at school. Will someone else be responsible for the auto-injector and other meds? Will your student self-carry? Will the teacher and/or other staff be trained on how to administer the autoinjector if needed? You may need to ask more questions this year. Be prepared.
Some of These New Measures Will Benefit You
At this point in the pandemic, we’re all well aware of a few basic tenets that help mitigate the risk of viral spread: Wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your face, and limit the items you share (and the people you share them with). Guess what, those are also really great allergy management protocols!
Remember, traces of food protein on your hands, for example, could trigger a reaction if you were to rub your eyes, nose, or touch your mouth. Remembering to not touch your face and to wash your hands frequently reduces that risk. Sharing items (and snacks!) may increase the risk of cross-contamination or contact with items/foods that aren’t safe for your allergic child. Encouraging students to limit the common items they share, reducing the number of times students may be eating/snacking while at school, and other such measures will also reduce the risk of cross-contamination or direct contact with potential allergens.
This one applies whether you’re juggling food allergies or not: Be prepared to be flexible. At this stage of the game, we’re all well aware that the plans we make today may change a dozen times in a short span of time. As states move to adjust their executive orders – whether to ease or tighten – in response to changes in metrics used to measure the spread of COVID-19, the plans we make must change as well. This can quickly create a sense of frustration, or even anxiety, as what we prepared for is again disrupted for some new model. Take a deep breath and be prepared to have to switch gears even after you think you have things settled.
Have a conversation with your allergist not just about what your child may need under today’s expected parameters, but also what contingency plans you may need to make if things change. Be ready to go with the flow and roll with the punches as things change. You’ve got this. You’re an allergy parent! You’re a superhero!