7 ways to keep students with food allergies safe in school

Many schools opening for in-person instruction this fall will require students to eat meals in the classroom. How can educators avoid putting students with food allergies at risk?
By: | August 24, 2020
Photo by MD Duran on UnsplashPhoto by MD Duran on Unsplash

Requiring students to eat meals in their assigned classroom during the COVID-19 outbreak might sound like a responsible strategy to avoid social proximity in the cafeteria, but it actually could put students with food allergies in harm’s way.

That’s because food allergens should be prohibited in a classroom setting, according to Civil Rights Advocacy for The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Connection Team, an organization that promotes awareness and safety measures for people with food allergies. Allowing students to eat meals at their desks in a classroom could increase the risk of allergen exposure and escalate anxieties for students with food allergies.

“I’m terrified our kids will slip through the cracks,” says Amelia Smith, general counsel and vice president of CRA for FAACT. “The biggest fear I have is spilled milk.”

Milk and other liquids with allergen proteins can spill, drip and splatter from several feet away, Smith says. Like milk, foods with gluten, nuts, fish, eggs and others pose dangerous risks to students with food allergies, who can react with hives, swollen airways, abdominal pain, anaphylaxis and even death from exposure to allergens.

The U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice recognize food allergies as a disability that requires accommodations under federal disability laws and regulations, including Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Students with food allergies may also qualify for special education services under the IDEA. ED has not requested—and Congress has not approved—any exceptions to these laws in educational settings during the pandemic.

Not providing accommodations to students with food allergies could lead to the denial of FAPE.

“Schools can be proactive and manage this,” Smith says. “They just have to recognize the need.”

Here are seven ways to keep students with food allergies safe in schools during the pandemic, according to FAACT and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

1. Allow exceptions to in-classroom dining

Recognize that schools can allow for staggered communal dining in a cafeteria or another common space, according to CDC guidelines issued May 19. How this works logistically can be determined at the school building level. FAACT suggests that if food consumption takes place in the classroom, students should be spaced further apart or assigned to a larger room.

Typically, the organization is opposed to segregating students with food allergies but, during the pandemic, keeping students with allergies together as a class or while eating a meal may be a necessary practice. “This year, we are dealing with things we’ve never done before,” Smith says.

2. Clean communal spaces

If communal spaces are to be used for dining, the groups of students eating together should be staggered and all surfaces should be thoroughly cleaned after each group finishes its meal, according to the CDC. Students should wash their hands with soap and water or use commercially available handwipes before and after eating, Smith adds. Hand sanitizers do not remove proteins that cause allergic reactions, she notes.

3. Avoid shared food, utensils

Ideally, students would bring their own food to school or be served individual plated or bagged meals, according to the CDC, which also promotes the use of disposable foodservice items.

4. Identify students that need accommodations

Schools are responsible for putting accommodations in place for students with known allergies and for identifying students who may be at risk for food allergies. Make sure the 504 coordinator is available to discuss individual accommodations, Smith says. A school nurse can help train teachers to recognize the symptoms of an allergic reaction, according to FAACT.

5. Create allergen-free or food-free zones

COVID-19 is causing educators to get creative academically, socially, and structurally. Certain school areas may have to be redesigned for different purposes. As school leaders rethink school spaces, they should designate certain areas to be off-limits to food consumption, FAACT recommends.

6. Notify staff of the new protocols

The 2020-21 school year will undoubtedly look and feel much different than past school years. Therefore, it is critical that veteran and new staff understand the new protocols for food consumption and individual accommodations. Substitute teachers also need to be informed of new practices, FAACT has advised.

7. Modify class projects, reward systems

Avoid using food or food packaging in-class projects and don’t offer food as a reward for a “job well done.” The fewer opportunities for accidental exposure to food allergens, says Smith, the better.

Kara Arundel covers special education for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication.