An elementary teacher’s tips on food-allergy safety.
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I’m not a food-allergy expert but I play one in my classroom. Like most teachers, I’ve seen an increase in the number of students who have severe food allergies. I don’t know why food-allergy rates are rising, but I do know that it means classrooms and schools are implementing new protocols to ensure the safety of their students. It also means that as an elementary school teacher, I’ve embraced the responsibility of following particular practices to make kids—and their parents—feel safe and ready to learn.
The school where I work has a number of policies to minimize the threat of food allergies and to maintain a safe and accepting environment. It prioritizes awareness without shining a spotlight or creating embarrassment. These nine steps help my school manage the multiple food allergies in our classrooms.
1. Up-to-date student allergy info is readily available.
Every staff member receives current student allergy lists as they are updated throughout the year. Each classroom displays this list in an easily accessible area that is referred to in emergency substitute plans in case there is someone unfamiliar with the students in that space.
Additionally, staff members receive copies of action plans for students with food allergies. These often include a photograph of the student (again, in case there’s a substitute teacher or a visitor), a list of their allergies and the common respiratory, cardiovascular, GI or skin reactions they might experience. The action plan designates which symptoms require administration of epinephrine and emphasizes that, when in doubt, this is the best course of action.
2. Medications are accessible.
Every student with severe food allergies has an epinephrine auto-injector, as well as allergy medication for lesser reactions, stored in the school office. Each student also has a kit with the same contents in the classroom every day. These kits are kept in a tote bag that travels with the class to snack, lunch, recess and any outdoor activities, so medications are always available wherever and whenever a reaction may occur.
3. Epinephrine is available in common areas.
The school has an AED defibrillator located within quick access to the lunchroom and classrooms. There is an additional epinephrine auto-injector stored in this same area.
4. School personnel are trained.
Every staff member is required to have current CPR and first aid certification. This free course is part of staff training each year. Additionally, we have a parent of a child with severe allergies, who is also a doctor, speak with our staff before each school year. He brings in expired EpiPens and grapefruit so everyone has the opportunity to see what using an actual EpiPen (not just a trainer with the needle removed) feels like by injecting the epinephrine into the grapefruit.
5. Wipes are routinely used to address cross-contamination.
We have a policy of using baby wipes to eliminate sources of contamination. Students with allergies typically eat at the end of a table, so they can be with their peers but have fewer allergens around them. Teachers wipe down the tables where they eat before snack and lunch. Students with allergies are also given wipes for their hands before each meal. After meals, every student is given a wipe for their hands/faces and table area to reduce the risk of allergen transfer or contact.
6. School is a nut-free zone.
Our school decided to be a nut-free zone, as nuts are one of the most prominent allergies among our students. This policy is publicized throughout the community verbally and in writing. Family support has been very strong. Because we also have students who are allergic to everything from wheat and dairy to flax and strawberries, it isn’t possible to eliminate all allergens; the baby wipes serve as a proactive measure to help eliminate cross-contamination.
7. Students are educated to be mindful of each other.
Our school follows the Responsive Classroom philosophy (responsiveclassroom.org), a research-based approach to teaching that honors the connection between social-emotional well-being and learning and academic success. This creates an environment in which students are respectful of their classmates’ individual needs and no one feels singled out or “different” since we all need different tools to help us succeed and stay healthy. Students learn that certain routines (wiping down tables and hands after meals) keep our school community safe and healthy, and they value being able to contribute to the overall well-being of the school population.
We also discuss the importance of keeping our food in our own space and we have a no-sharing policy (just for food!). This can be difficult for little ones but we have open discussions about how we all have certain foods that make us feel healthy and some that might make us feel not so great. Since the grownups at home know best what is right for each student to eat, it’s important that children eat what was packed just for them.
8. Parents fully apprise the school.
We ask parents to let us know if they plan to send in treats for birthdays or other celebrations. We then reach out to parents of students with food allergies to let them know when the celebration is happening. Some parents opt to send in a comparable treat for their child on that day (a cupcake that’s egg-free and dairy-free), while other parents provide non-perishable treats for teachers to keep on hand for their child (individually wrapped snack bars, etc.) that we can provide as needed. Some parents also opt to send in allergen-free treats for the entire class; in these instances, I always clear the treat with the families to ensure that the ingredients are safe.
9. I stash safe snacks.
I keep several sweet and savory treats from trusted, allergen-free brands in my desk in case there’s a last-minute event involving food. I clear these options with parents. (Some products that have been extremely handy for my students’ needs are SkinnyPop Original Popcorn and Enjoy Life cookies and bars.) For class celebrations, I typically put these treats out so everyone can partake. This way, no one has to worry about cross-contamination from crumby hands.
Together, schools and families can communicate to ensure that staff members are informed and able to make accommodations so all students are safe. When everyone is involved and invested in food-allergy safety, severe food allergies in the classroom are manageable for teachers, parents and students.
Kate Hillson Martung teaches first grade at Beth Hillel Elementary School in Valley Village, California.