By Gary Fitzgerald
The first day of school brings out the jitters in everyone – even parents. If your child has food allergies, your anxieties may be multiplied. You want to ensure your child is safe within the school environment. Is this the time to consider a 504 Plan?
“All families have the right to request a 504 Plan evaluation,” says Kathleen McDarby, RN, MPH, project manager withthe Food Allergy Management & Education (FAME) program at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “The age of the student or severity of symptoms make no difference.”
Determining if a 504 Plan fits your child’s health care needs will depend on how well the school already manages food allergies.
Most schools offer an Individualized Health Care Plan (IHCP), developed by the school nurse or administrator in collaboration with the parents and physician, to help food-allergic children stay safe at school. It details a child’s food allergy diagnosis, prevention strategies, medication needs and what to do in case of an emergency.
Schools may also offer an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It’s usually applied to children who have special education needs along with food allergies.
Deciding what best meets your child’s needs will take some homework on your part. Schedule a meeting with the school nurse, administrative staff and your child’s teachers to ask about the school’s food allergy policies.
Also ask: How aware is the staff of the signs of anaphylaxis? What treats are offered at classroom birthday parties or school dances? Where are epinephrine auto-injectors stored? Talk with other parents of food-allergic children, too.
If you think your child’s food allergy limits their ability to participate fully in school activities and requires special accommodations, then a 504 Plan might be needed.
“My advice is to undergo the 504 evaluation – that will help determine if a 504 Plan is necessary,” McDarby says.
Eleanor Garrow-Holding, president and CEO of nonprofit education and advocacy group Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team (FAACT) and the mom of a food-allergic son, says choosing an accommodation plan is “a very personal decision.”
“Many parents feel their child’s school truly works with them and voluntarily accommodates their child, and therefore are comfortable with IHCPs,” she says. “However, IHCPs do not afford the same legal protection as 504 Plans. No matter the type of accommodation plan chosen, it is essential that it focus on the student’s specific needs.”
Learn more about accommodation plans for food allergies at FAACT’s website: www.foodallergyawareness.org/civil-rights-advocacy.
Reviewed by Andrea Holka
ABCs of 504 Plans
A 504 Plan is a written management plan governed by Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It outlines accommodations that elementary, secondary and post-secondary schools must make for children with disabilities. Food allergies are included as a disability because anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, substantially impacts major life activities such as eating and breathing.
Once a parent formally requests a 504 Plan evaluation, the school nurse, principal, 504 Plan coordinator and others evaluate the student’s health needs. Medical records are reviewed and a decision is made if the student is eligible. If yes, a 504 Plan is developed and all school staff members, including school nutrition and transportation employees, are expected to implement it. The plan should be reviewed annually and can be altered as the child’s needs change.
FAME has updated its Food Allergy Management & Education Manual and Tool-Kit for 2014, adding a 504 Plan decision chart to help parents, health care providers and school nurses better navigate the evaluation process step by step. It offers a list of accommodations in classrooms, the cafeteria, and on school buses and field trips.
The FAME manual and toolkit is available as a free download at www.stlouischildrens.org/FAME.