Lunch in the classroom: 504 plan considerations

A food allergy expert offers 4 ways to keep students with allergies safe in schools where cafeteria seating is currently closed due to COVID.

The No. 1 change families of students with food allergies have fought for in the past is food-free classrooms in all possible scenarios, says Lisa Gable, CEO of the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education. The current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommended moving the service of food—whether lunch or snacks—out of the cafeteria setting and into the classroom during COVID-19.

Students with food allergies are eligible under Section 504 if the allergy substantially limits a major life activity, such as breathing, respiratory function, immune system function or learning. Adhering to a student’s 504 plan is crucial, Gable sats. “The 504 plan outlines specifically what that child needs. It’s critically important to keep the child safe.”

Here are ways to ensure the safety of students with food allergies when all students are eating in the classroom.

  1. Know your students. Make sure that school administrators, principals, and teachers understand the food allergy profile in the classroom, Gable says. “[It’s] important for everyone to understand who has what allergies in the class.”
  2. Educate staff. Before the school year starts, have teachers and other staff members “refresh their understanding of food allergies, the medical conditions of their individual students, and the symptoms of food allergic reactions as well as how to appropriately respond,” reads guidance from FARE along with eight other allergy groups in their letter to the CDC. A number of different training programs and other resources are available online. This might be the best way to get information out quickly if training is needed as soon as possible before the school year starts, Gable says.
  3. Be prepared to act in case of an allergic reaction. Ensure nurses and teachers are trained and understand what they’re watching for. If they see an allergic reaction triggered, they should know what they’re supposed to do. “Ensure they have the education needed to help a child at risk,” Gable says. The teacher should be prepared to act by knowing where an auto-injector is and being primed to move into action immediately if anything does occur.
  4. Enact protocols for cleanliness. In any classroom where a student has a food allergy, FARE and the other food allergy groups in the letter to the CDC recommend enacting the following protocols:
  • Reinforce strict handwashing with soap and water after food contact. Use soap and water instead of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which have been proven to not remove allergenic proteins from hands.
  • Disinfect surfaces after food contact is made.
  • Institute a blanket “do not share” food policy.
  • Do not attempt allergy-free seating. “It would be extremely difficult to make nut-free tables work in a classroom,” Gable says. Not only would it be hard to execute, but some families are not comfortable with having their child isolated from the rest of the students, she said. Separating students also brings with it issues of social dynamics.

School teams should also take another look at the allergic student’s 504 plan to see if anything needs to be revised or highlighted now that there will be food in the classroom, Gable says. Address parents’ specific concerns. Parents are going to be very loud advocates if they feel there is a need to revise the plan, she adds. “This is an important time for parents to vocalize exactly what their child needs.”

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for Special Ed Connection, a DA sister publication. 

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