Back to School with Food Allergies

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Confessions of an elementary school teacher

A student rushed up and threw his arms around me, exclaiming his excitement to see me. As he ran off, I studied the front of my shirt and pants, wiping my hands over the fabric. In a hurry, I’d scarfed down a breakfast sandwich in the car that morning. I wondered if a wayward crumb had hitched a ride on my clothes and unintentionally transferred to my student…who has food allergies. Not the kind where he might get a tummy ache or a scratchy throat—we’re talking anaphylaxis.

So goes the life of a classroom teacher. Among the many hats I wear to work, I never show up without my crumb-tracking, cross-contamination, what-did-that-kid-touch-that-my-allergy-kids-might-also-touch hat.

I only encountered severe food allergies in the classroom within the past few years. Several members of my family have celiac disease, so I approached my first case with confidence. I quickly learned, however, that the food allergies in my classroom are a completely different animal. Ingestion of a food allergen–even a trace amount—can be life threatening. Some children experience a reaction just by contact alone.

One of my students recently fell victim to a drive-by, cheese puff-laced kiss; the girl chasing him during recess was doing what kids will do. The kiss landed on the back of his neck, causing a raised, red, itchy rash that required a few doses of allergy medication. This incident led to the inevitable discussion about respecting personal space and keeping our bodies—and mouths—to ourselves.

Which leads me to the hand wipes. We use them to wipe down lunch tables before our students with allergies sit down. We then give the students with allergies wipes for their hands, in case they touched something that could affect them. After eating, every student in the school cleans their hands and faces with wipes. These preventive actions allow kids with food allergies to develop routines that keep them safe. They also create a peer group that is aware and respectful. The normalcy with which these protocols are implemented keeps the kids with allergies from feeling singled out.

Although my job description is to teach, my number one priority is to ensure my students’ emotional and physical safety so they’re able to learn. Each student comes to school with his or her own unique needs, which I embrace.

But, truth be told, I felt overwhelmed after my first encounter with severe food allergies. The what-ifs were frightening. And eliminating all risk is impossible. So rather than fixating on what could happen, I arm myself with knowledge and implement as many preventive measures as possible. Still, it’s hard to avoid going through the mental checklists and what-ifs when a kid rushes in for a hug after I’ve had a breakfast-in-the-car morning.

If I feel this way, I can’t imagine the concern that must consume parents of these kids. This is why it’s essential for teachers and schools to have up-to-date lists of student allergies and their potential reactions, well-publicized policies for off-limits foods, classroom treats and epinephrine administration, as well as easy access to autoinjectors. Knowing that a school is fully on board reassures parents that their child will be able to learn and be treated like any other kid.

Food allergies should be taken seriously—but they shouldn’t take over a kid’s life. We all have our “stuff” to deal with in life. Although we hope to be in environments that will honor and meet our individual needs, none of us wants our differences to be highlighted or to cause social implications.

So I wear my different hats, keep the wipes handy and give out lots of hugs—to all my students.

Kate Hillson Martung teaches first grade at Beth Hillel Elementary School in Valley Village, California. For more about safe school protocols, see Food Allergies in the Classroom.