It’s that time of year again… the air is far from turning crisp and cool, but the school buses are running and classes are starting. It is back to school time! To this day, I love buying school supplies. Something about fresh, new pencils and notebooks… it’s hard to explain, but there’s nothing quite like it.
Unfortunately, for kids with chronic illnesses and severe allergies, school brings a whole host of challenges that the majority of people don’t even think about. A student with sickle-cell anemia who can’t be exposed to extreme temperatures (eg. fire drills during the winter), a diabetic student who needs to check her blood sugar multiple times a day, a student with a feeding tube who goes to the nurse for lunch and can’t be around food…. Fortunately, there is a way to put a plan in place.
The 504 Plan
Many people are familiar with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) that students with special learning needs have. These outline the accommodations these students receive. Not as many people know about the 504 plan. A 504 is similar to an IEP, but has some key differences. A 504 is for student who have a medical diagnosis that might interfere with his or her education. For example, when a student of mine was diagnosed with sickle-cell anemia, a plan had to be put in place to provide accommodations for him. It didn’t affect his learning, but he couldn’t go outside during the extreme low temperatures of a Midwest winter for fire drills. 504 plans can be temporary (if a student has a surgery and then heals) or ongoing (if a student has diabetes). Unlike an IEP, a 504 is for life. They can (and should) be updated regularly, but a 504 provide legal protection and accommodations for people even after they leave school. For example, a counselor friend of mine told me that when her dad was a school administrator, they had a teacher who had medical documentation that fluorescent lights gave her severe migraines. Because she had a 504 plan in place, she was able to have all the lights in her classroom replaced with lights that were safe for her. For kids with severe allergies, this type of plan can literally mean life or death. It is a legal document that says they get certain accommodations. This could be something as simple as allowing the student to eat away from the cafeteria to limit exposure, to something more extreme, like requiring entire areas of the school to be peanut-free.
What Do I Need?
To set up the 504, you will need to contact your child’s school counselor. A 504 meeting could include the school nurse, an administrator, the counselor… it depends on the school and the issues particular to your child.
If you have medical documentation, provide that for your school. Not all schools require it, but providing the actual medical documentation makes the diagnosis much harder to dispute. Also, if the doctor can provide suggestions for accommodations, that is helpful as well. Come to the meeting with some ideas for accommodations yourself. Be ready to explain your child’s condition, especially if it is something not many people are familiar with. Peanut allergies are becoming much more prevalent, but some things, like EOE or Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, are much less common, and therefore will require explanation.
A Request from a Teacher
Come prepared to advocate for your kid, to stand up for what they need, and to not take no for an answer. HOWEVER, please also come with understanding. Please understand that the school truly does want to accommodate and keep your child safe. Your knowledge of your child’s condition and needs are invaluable to the teacher, the counselor, the school. However, always remember to look at big picture things and make sure your accommodation requests are reasonable. For example, it is completely reasonable to include that the teacher must contact you to inform you of class celebrations involving food so you can provide safe alternatives. It is completely reasonable to include that peanuts or peanut butter are not allowed in the classroom if the allergy is that severe. It might not be reasonable, however, to request extended testing time because your kid is allergic to eggs or can’t drink milk. It is reasonable to include extended time for assignments due to being out for doctor’s appointments or due to flare-ups of conditions. Go to the 504 meeting ready to work together with the school, and it will be a much better experience for everyone. Again, this is when having medical documentation and notes from your child’s doctor is helpful, so the school officials can see that the accommodations are necessary. As long as your accommodation requests are legitimate and you are not trying to game the system, you should defend and advocate for your child as much as you can.
To find out more, check out the http://apfed.org/advocacy/school-advocacy/ and https://www.foodallergy.org/advocacy. These sites will help you understand your rights as parents, the rights of your students, and the role of school in providing accommodations. Most importantly, stay in communication with your child’s counselor and teacher. As an EOE/allergy parent, I obviously understand the concerns of parents, but as a teacher of over 140 student, I also understand that sometimes teachers forget. The more you communicate with your child’s teacher, the more likely they are to remember and accommodate for your child.