Food Allergies at School: the Plans, the Laws to Keep Kids Included

in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School

Teacher sitting at table with young school kids in lessonPhoto: Getty
Updated July 2023 – Transitioning a child with food allergies into a new school environment is challenging. But with the right preparation, you can help your child’s school to provide a safe and inclusive environment.

Thanita Glancey provides Allergic Living followers with the essential information necessary in order for a food-allergic child to have equal access to education and activities at school. She is the support group leader of the Loudoun Allergy Network in Virginia and an expert in school accommodations.

1. Allergies at School: Research

Knowledge is a powerful ally when negotiating with the school. As a parent, when you are prepared for your child’s Section 504 plan or Individual Health Care Plan (IHCP) meeting, you will go into the meeting feeling more confident and earn respect by having awareness of the process. Suggested topics to research:

  • The school district’s policies and/or guidelines. Find out whether the school district has a food allergy management policy or guidelines, and take note of the school accommodations addressed as well as any that may be missing. In discussion, schools are likely to reference their policy, and you will want to ensure your child has all the necessary accommodations. Also, check your state department of education for allergy policies or law.
  • Review the CDC’s “Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in School and Early Childhood Education Programs.” See summary; full guidelines.
  • Medicine protocols. Does the school allow students to self-carry emergency medicine, such as epinephrine auto-injectors and an asthma inhaler? Does it have a “stock epinephrine” program?
  • Non-profit organizations’ resources, such as FARE, FAACT, Kids with Food Allergies. Plus, the AAAAI allergists’ organization.
  • Joining a food allergy support group. There are several, both online and groups who meet in person. See the FAACT-sponsored: NNMG Families, in person and online; its Facebook group for parents of high school students, plus the Friends Helping Friends group.

[For Canadian education resources, click here.]

2. Allergies at School: the Supporting Laws

There are laws that can support your child with food allergies to have a safe and inclusive school year. Below are the primary laws to review.

Americans with Disability Act (ADA) Amendment Act of 2008: The ADA is a federal civil rights law that makes it illegal to discriminate against an individual with a disability. It is broadly written in order to include students with physical or mental impairments that were once not thought of as disability. The ADA says that an individual is defined as having a disability if the individual’s health impairment “substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of having such an impairment, or being regarded of having such an impairment.” With a food allergy, the major life activities that can be “substantially limited” are eating, breathing (due to anaphylaxis) and digestion.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973: The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) oversees Section 504 regulations to ensure equal access to education is provided in federally funded schools. Section 504 and the ADA work in tandem. To be protected under Section 504 regulations, a student must be found eligible as “disabled” under the ADA. Students in the elementary school and high school are afforded what’s known as Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to the maximum extent appropriate to the student’s needs. The regulations say the student with the disability should be provided regular or special education and related services “designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs as adequately” as the needs of nondisabled students.”

Title II of the ADA: The OCR also enforces Title II of the ADA. Title II prohibits “discrimination on the basis of a disability in programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education … and by state and local government.”

Title III of the ADA: Title III of the ADA prohibits “discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations.”

3. The Student’s Plans

First, you will need a doctor’s plan. Then a written plan that is clear, appropriate, and discusses how to safely address the environments the child will encounter is essential.

Photo: Getty
Emergency Allergy Action Plan (EAAP): Also referred to as the Allergy Action Plan (AAP), requires a physician to complete and sign. It is a plan that details the signs and symptoms of a reaction, how to respond to a reaction, as well as medications to administer and the dose. In short, the EAAP is the response to follow during a reaction. Examples: American Academy of Pediatrics’ Anaphylaxis Emergency Plan; AAAAI Plan.

Individual Health Care Plan (IHCP): The IHCP documents accommodations required to keep the allergic student safe in the school setting.

Section 504 Plan: An accommodation plan that provides equal access to services and activities to eligible students by any school that receives federal financial assistance. I encourage families who have children with food allergies to obtain a 504 Plan as it assists all school staff who come in contact with your child with how to provide a safe and inclusive environment. As well, having accommodations clearly detailed protects the school from a potential discrimination violation. While the EAAP is a response to a reaction, the 504 plan and the IHCP are the anaphylaxis prevention plans.

Accommodating Children with Disabilities in School Meal Programs: This is the update to the previous USDA guidelines for accommodating students in school meal programs. It added key references are Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the ADA Amendments Act and provisions to accommodate students with food allergies.

4. Formally Request the 504 Plan

If submitting a request for your child to be evaluated for a Section 504 Plan, it is recommended to make the request in writing, via email, to the school’s 504 Plan coordinator and another administrator at the school. The 504 Plan coordinator is typically the assistant principal. Once received, the school will need to follow a response and evaluation timeline.

5. Negotiate Accommodations

In any accommodations meeting, whether for a 504 Plan, IHCP or other, specify accommodations that address every environment that your child may encounter. Consider phys-ed, art class, clubs, sports, etc. Such meetings should occur prior to the start of the new school year.

6. Review Annually

The plans should be reviewed annually for any possible updates. For example, a new school year in a different grade may present new challenges. Middle school presents different challenges than elementary school. Similarly, high school presents its own set of unique environments, as students get involved in activities such as sports or music.

Allergies at School: Topics to Discuss  

The Class Environment: The question that usually arises is whether the classroom will be “food-free or allergen-free?” Keep in mind a food-free classroom is the preferred option as it reduces the risk of allergen exposure, cross-contact, food sharing (which can occur at any age) and accidental ingestion potentially causing anaphylaxis. An “allergen-free” classroom is more difficult to manage as it raises the risk of exposure potentially causing anaphylaxis.

Auto-Injector Location: Discuss the location of the epinephrine auto-injectors, and any other necessary medications. Also, whether a set will be kept in the clinic office and/or your child will self-carry. For access, the clinic set should be unlocked during the school day.

Self-Carry or Not: It is not uncommon for students, once mature enough, to self-carry their emergency medication such as epinephrine auto-injector. This includes provides quick access for staff as well as access to the medication if your child will be riding on the bus.

Class Supplies: Discuss how the school can eliminate allergen-containing, such as soaps, wipes and art supplies and other materials used used in class activities and curriculum.

Field Trips: In an IHCP or 504 Plan meeting, address concerns such as being notified in the planning stages about the location of the field trip to address any allergen exposure concerns. It is important that a school staff member who is trained to avoid, recognize and treat allergic reactions attends the field trip. Older students may undertake more off-school grounds activities, through sports or clubs. See also: Field Trips & Food Allergies Tips.

The School Bus: Inquire when the bus driver will receive your child’s plans and will be notified about his/her food allergies. Either the bus driver or an aide on the bus will need to be trained on how to the recognition of a reaction, administration of the epinephrine auto-injector and emergency protocols. A “no eating on the bus” policy must be communicated and enforced, unless another child has a medical requirement to eat on the bus. It’s important to communicate about this with the school.

Cafeteria: Depending on your child’s age, the school cafeteria environment, and several other factors, where your child will sit should be discussed well before the start of the school year. Some options for food-allergic students may include:

  • Sitting with the rest of the class (so not to be excluded) but with a buffer of students between those eating the allergens and those with safe lunches.
  • Sitting towards the end of the table to reduce the chance of exposure to food allergens. Considering that there is no true “allergy-free” environment, discuss how the school will address the needs of all students with different or opposing food allergies who may be seated with your child during the same lunch period.

Work with your child’s school on accommodations in order to provide a school environment that will keep your child well taken care of – both physically and emotionally.

Thanita Glancey is the support group leader of the Loudoun Allergy Network. Her daughter lives with multiple food allergies.

Related Reading:
Guide to Food Allergy School Issues at Different Ages, Stages
Helping Schools Understand Food Allergies
7 Must-Have Food Allergy Tools for Going to School