The start of a new school year can be stressful for food allergy parents. Heck it can be stressful for all parents. New teachers, new rules, a new environment. We’re lucky that Bubba is back at her same preschool. One that has been extremely accommodating, supportive, and eager to learn when necessary. Her school is nut-free, birthday celebrations are food-free, and she brings her own snacks so the risk of her actually ingesting an unsafe food is reasonably minimal. The beginning of a relationship with a new teacher is always a delicate one however. My job is to advocate for my child. To do this most effectively, I need to create an ally while also being firm in what precautions must be followed to keep my kid safe. I think too often food allergy parents can mentally prepare themselves for a ‘fight’ before the school year has even begun. That can be based on fear or on prior fights they have actually endured. I think the best approach is to assume a teacher is the person ready to love and protect your child as much as you do. Teachers are often underpaid and under appreciated. They usually entered the profession because they love children. If you can approach your relationship with your child’s new teacher from this perspective, all that’s needed is information. A teacher doesn’t need to be reprimanded if they didn’t follow protocol – they need more information about the potential consequences of an unsafe environment. If your child felt excluded because of an activity or treat in the classroom – the teacher needs to know about those feelings. Your job as an advocate is to provide information and offer whatever support you can. Maybe the teacher could use another set of eyes during lunch time and needs you to push for an aide with the administration. Perhaps other families are having trouble remembering a new no-nut policy and you could draft a letter to go out to parents. Are other kids in the classroom making your child feel different? Maybe you could donate a book about food allergies to your school’s library.
When I met with Bubba’s teacher at the beginning of the year, I discovered that she had been trained on the Epi-pen, but not the Auvi-Q. This is the epinephrine auto-injector that we’ll keep at school so she needs to know how to use it. I offered a quick training at orientation, but then approached the school directors about when we can do a school-wide training. I said I would be happy to donate our training devices as well as our expired Auvi-Qs so everyone can get a chance to practice hands-on. I also wrote a letter to Bubba’s teacher explaining a bit more about her allergies and reactions. I hoped the information would be easier to digest when not busy trying to speak with all the other new parents.
Bubba is contact allergic to milk and eggs, but we have rarely had issues. We keep milk and eggs in our home, but thanks to diligent cleaning, she has only had small contact reactions a few times (all of which were resolved with prompt skin washing). I was a bit nervous on the first day of school when Bubba arrived in the classroom and the morning preschool class was finishing lunch. One little boy was finishing his Pirate’s Booty and the thought of cheese dust all over everything made me anxious. But, I know I informed Bubba’s teacher about contact issues and how to treat them. I also know we discussed starting the school day with hand washing. Bubba would be in a separate area of the classroom until lunch was cleaned up. So I chose to take a deep breath and trust that Bubba would be safe. That can be very hard to do as an allergy parent. Letting go, even a little bit, and trusting in the safety net you have built around your child.
Of course there are challenges to this professed zen-like approach. Bubba had a couple small itchy bumps on her arm after her first day and told me she thought she had hives at school. It could have been random skin issues, including contact dermatitis. Regardless, we had a big talk about always telling a grown-up if she feels funny or itchy and why that’s so important. After the second day of school, she broke out in hives all down the backs of her legs. I tried washing her off, but she began crying from being so itchy so I quickly gave her Benadryl. What does the anxious food-allergy mom think? Did her bare legs touch a chair or surface covered in milk residue? Is this a contact reaction? I will need to discuss washing down all surfaces at school after children have eaten. What does the trying-my-very-best-to-be-rational food-allergy mom think? If the hives were from school, that’s weird that she didn’t get them at school. Contact hives are usually fairly quick. Did she eat anything new? Hmmmm. She tried a new homemade salmon dip both days. She hasn’t eaten a lot of salmon before – maybe only a few bites a couple times. Has she been tested for salmon? Oh boy. Is she fighting a bug? Could these be viral hives? Could they be idiopathic – hives for no apparent reason? Our allergist would probably say that might be as likely as anything. Sometimes there is no apparent cause for hives.
Whatever the cause, I will need to have a rational, reasonable, and positive discussion with Bubba’s school. A little more education about food residue and the potential for contact reactions could help prevent problems in the future for her and/or for another allergic kiddo who is more sensitive. The teachers and administrators are on my team. We all want to keep this little one safe.