Safe at School: Navigating COVID-19 and Food Allergies

in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: July 29, 2020
Child with face mask back at school after covid-19 quarantine and lockdown, looking at camera.
Photo: Getty

Allergic Living explores 8 key areas – including food in the classroom – for food allergy parents to consider during COVID-19. Columnist Gina Clowes worked as the program director for the CDC’s Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools.

IF YOU are feeling stressed, you’re not alone. With dramatic changes to the school environment due to the coronavirus pandemic, parents have important decisions to make. How can our children learn while staying safe from allergic reactions and COVID-19?

While there are no one-size-fits-all solutions, here are the questions I’ve heard most often and some answers to help navigate this unusual period of school life.

1. Where do I start?

You’ll want to make sure you have a chance to discuss your child’s needs in the new environment, so reach out to school administrators now. Explain that your child will need accommodations and ask to meet prior to school starting, so that you can review any procedures with your child.

Because of changes to the school environment, your child’s 504 Plan may need to change for this year. If possible, include language in the 504 Plan that explains these changes have been implemented due to the pandemic, and that re-evaluation in 2021 is recommended. 

2. In-person or online learning?

You’re fortunate if you still have a choice. Many districts, including 10 of the 15 largest in the country have already decided on online learning for the fall. Consider your child and family’s needs, and the environment.

Experts report that children are unlikely to experience severe illness from COVID-19, but there are exceptions. Does your child have risk factors? Are there special education needs not addressed with online schooling? Will your child do well in the new environment? We all long for our children to be able to socialize again, but school this year will be far from normal.

Even if your child is raring to attend school, if there is a parent or grandparent with a preexisting condition in the home, an asymptomatic child could endanger them.

Consider factors such as: How prevalent is the virus in your area? Are cases on the rise? What does the school have planned for transportation, education, meals, and safety protocols?

3. How are schools preparing to socially distance?

The CDC ranks “full size, in-person classes” as highest risk so many districts are staggering schedules and modifying environments to protect staff and students.

While online learning from home poses the least risk, some schools will move to a hybrid or cohort model to reduce potential exposure.

A hybrid model combines in-person and online instruction to reduce the number of children in classrooms and common areas. For example, students with last names beginning A-L, would attend in-person Monday and Tuesday. Last names beginning M-Z attend Thursday and Friday. Students attend virtually on the other three days.

Other hybrid models have half of the students attend school in the morning and the other half attend in the afternoon.

Many states recommend keeping younger students in small groups throughout the day. These cohorts eat lunch in their classroom to avoid exposure to large groups in the cafeteria. Special instruction teachers rotate into the classroom rather than having students move around.

4. Is lunch in the classroom safe?

Teacher and children with face mask back at school after covid-19 quarantine and lockdown, writing.
Photo: Getty

I’ve always advocated against food in the classroom. However, in the midst of a pandemic, keeping small group of students together in a designated area, may not be a bad idea. The CDC recommends eating in classrooms to cut out mingling in cafeterias and reduce virus spread risk.

Think about whether this could work for your child. Consider your child’s age, maturity, history and severity of reactions, and student-to-teacher ratio.

Many districts will serve only prepackaged meals that are delivered to the classroom or served grab-and-go from the cafeteria. In some classrooms, children will eat in their assigned seats facing in the same direction.

If the school’s plan is for meals in the classroom, and that isn’t considered safe for your child, explore options with school staff. It’s best to get a letter from your child’s allergist, and to think of as many alternatives as possible.

For example, eating outdoors may be an option. Or eating in the cafeteria with socially distanced assigned seats. Consider though, that if many students are eating in the same space, the risk of exposure to COVID-19 could be increased. Talking through these scenarios with your child’s doctor may help with evaluating risks.

5. What about snacks and classroom celebrations?

In reviewing return-to-school guidelines for 36 states, only North Dakota guidelines mentioned celebrations and using caution with outside food not meant for individual consumption.

Now is a great time to clarify the school’s policy on outside food. Restrictions due to the pandemic could curtail parents sharing food in schools – at least for this year. (A silver lining?)

Snacks may be a different issue. In schools where cafeterias are used, lunch times will be staggered to minimize the number of students there. As a result, some kids may be eating lunch early or late in the day. An individual snack from home may help to sustain them. If allergens are restricted from the classroom, it will be easier to implement this accommodation for snacks only.

6. My child’s 504 Plan says “No food in the classroom” can this be enforced?

I reached out to disability attorney Mary Vargas of the firm Stein & Vargas for this question. Her response was: “I don’t know what enforcement there will be if a parent has a 504 Plan and it’s not followed in the middle of a pandemic. That world [when the 504 was written] doesn’t exist anymore. The world is on fire. There is no normal.”

Vargas recommends having a conversation with the family’s allergist to clarify “what is nice and what is necessary.” She encourages empathy for parents, teachers and administrators. “Everyone is operating at full capacity. This [pandemic] is a situation that nobody wants. We have to be kind and compassionate not only to our children, but to those trying to keep our kids safe.”

7. Will my child be safe on the bus?

Even with districts staggering start times and providing “airplane seating” on buses (where the middle seat is kept empty), buses are close quarters. If you can provide transportation for your child, it’s probably a great idea to do so. If not, request assigned seats on the bus, so that your child is only exposed to the same seatmate.

Most districts require the use of masks on buses, and it’s worth reminding school officials to reinforce the “no eating” policy there.

8. How can I prepare my child emotionally?

Gently set expectations. Spend a little time talking about how the school day will go and the reason for new rules.

Explain to younger children that COVID-19 comes from invisible germs. Some germs help us grow and stay healthy, like the ones in pickles or yogurt. Others, like the coronavirus germs, can make people sick.

Washing hands with soap and hot water, or using hand-sanitizer keeps the coronavirus germs away. Demonstrate how to lather up for 20 seconds or while singing the Happy Birthday song twice. You’ll also want to show how to sneeze or cough into the elbow.

Have your child wear a mask around the house. Practice when and how to take it off, and where to put it while eating and drinking. Many schools will be using taped arrows and X’s in school hallways to promote physical distancing. In stores, point out how these work. Review schools’ procedures and “paint a picture” for your child to help them feel more prepared.

Ask your child how he is feeling now, and check-in regularly when school starts.

Naming feelings can help, too. Try something like: “Sounds like you’re really frustrated with the new rules.” Or: “Maybe you’re feeling sad about missing your friends.” Feeling understood helps us feel seen and connected.

Finally, don’t forget the fun stuff. Pick out a new lunch box or water bottle. Shop online for some superhero masks. Find a new backpack or plan a first day outfit. Remind her how happy she will be to see her friends again.

Allergic Living columnist Gina Clowes worked for three years as the program director for the CDC’s Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs, and is the former national director of training for the nonprofit FARE. Ms. Clowes is a certified master life coach, who specializes in the needs of parents of children with food allergies and founder of, the well-known online support group.

Related Resources
Johns Hopkins’ States and School Reopening Tracker
CDC’s Schools & Coronavirus website
CDC School Decision-Making Tool for Parents