The start of a new school year is always a bit bittersweet for me. Like many parents I am sad to see my young children up and leave the nest, but am happy to have them out of the house for a bit. As a mother of a food allergic six year old, I’m fraught with worry and a touch of anxiety.
Leaving public preschool 2 years ago I learned that our school district did not have a written policy for managing children with life threatening food allergies. No where was it written how tables should be cleaned, where food allergic kids should sit at lunch, or whether classrooms should be deemed free of a child’s allergen. Most food allergic children had a simple (half filled out) Individual Health Care Plan (IHCP) but no one had ever asked for a 504 plan let alone an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). (Life threatening food allergies are considered a hidden disability under disability law).
After many discussions with school administrators, school committee members, and others; we entered Kindergarten with an extremely detailed IHCP attached to an already existing IEP and the school implemented (its first ever) written policy regarding food allergies. However a written plan is only as good as it is followed and there are bound to be bumps in the road. We suffered through many.
On Halloween my 5 year old son was given a pumpkin shaped sugar cookie deemed peanut and tree nut safe by school staff. They forgot to check the ingredient label for egg or any warning labels. He never told anyone but immediately told me after school that he had a cookie and his tongue was very itchy. On many other occasions he found himself sitting alone at lunch at the allergy safe table. One day he came home in tears, so we reluctantly agreed to let him sit at his class table. His daily spot was at the end of the rectangular table with a peanut and tree nut safe lunch across from and next to him. This worked out well and we changed his detailed plan accordingly.
Tomorrow is the start of first grade. He’ll be in a new classroom, meet new students (which means new parents to work with), and have a new teacher who was kind enough to meet with me a week ago to go over our detailed plan. Tomorrow will be the first day in his life where he will choose where to sit at lunch.
At our school, Kindergarten students are required to sit at their class table for lunch and first graders may sit where they choose. Thus far our son chooses not to sit at the allergy aware table alone. His plan for this year states that he will find a spot next to friends with peanut and tree nut free lunches. A staff member will help him if necessary. For any older child this might not be cause for worry, for our son who has some social delays this leaves he and I a bit apprehensive.
We’ve talked about it a bit and I’ve talked to the school staff who have assured me that someone will assist him until he settles into a routine. While I trust that this will happen, a plan is only as good as it is followed and there are sure to be bumps in the road. Tomorrow as we start another school year I’ll be standing in the background of the cafeteria prepared to offer any emotional support and ensuring my son has a safe and happy lunch experience.
After all, this is just one of the many things we all do as parents of food allergic children to make the experience a little less bitter and a lot more sweet.