All parents feel some worry when they send their child off to school for the first time, or to a new school. Will my child like her school and teacher? Will he get on the right school bus? Will it be a positive environment?
As a parent of a child with food allergies, you also worry about your child’s health needs and safety. What will he eat? How will she be able to safely take part safely in school activities? What if he has an allergic reaction at school? And much more.
Concerns like these are legitimate and understandable. You will have to trust that the school staff will learn to manage your child’s allergies safely. How will you ensure that they do? The key is to work with the school cooperatively and proactively. The goal is to create a comprehensive school health care plan. A 504 plan does this.
What Is a 504 Plan?
A 504 plan is a plan between you and your child’s school. It addresses how the school will accommodate your child’s food allergies.
The name comes from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This law says schools that get federal funding cannot exclude or discriminate against students who have disabilities. Under this law and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a food allergy is usually considered a disability.
Does My Child’s School Have to Follow This Law?
All public schools, including preschools and colleges, must follow this law. Private schools must follow this law if they receive some form of federal funding.
What’s the Difference Between a 504 Plan and Other Care Plans?
There are three common types of care plans used in many schools:
- Emergency Care Plan (ECP) – This is a medical plan from your child’s doctor for the school to follow.
- Individualized Health Care Plan (IHCP) – This is a type of nursing care plan. For a student with food allergies, this would include an emergency care plan.
- 504 Plan – This is a legal contract between a school and a student.
The main difference between a 504 plan and the other plans is that the 504 plan is a legally binding document. A 504 plan gives you and your child more protections and legal backing if the school does not follow the plan.
A 504 plan also has guidelines for changes to make in the classroom or other areas to provide a safe education.
Does My Child Need a 504 Plan?
Not all food-allergic students need a 504 plan. Consider your child’s needs. Does the school have a full-time nurse on site? Are there limited school resources? Does the school currently have effective policies and procedures in place? How well is the school cooperating with your requests?
Sometimes, just having an IHCP is enough, especially if the school already has good food allergy policies in place. But if there are concerns about effective food allergy management, you will want to have a 504 plan in place.
Does My Child Qualify for a 504 Plan?
Having a food allergy does not automatically qualify your child for a 504 plan.
To get a 504 plan, your child must first be evaluated by the school for eligibility. Your child must meet the official definition of having a “disability.” How can you help the school with this process? Have documentation from your child’s doctor showing that your child’s food allergies cause a serious limitation of a major life activity. “Major life activities” include eating and breathing.
How Do I Get the 504 Plan Process Started?
Start by contacting the school principal and the school district’s 504 coordinator in writing about your child’s food allergies. Ask that your child be evaluated for eligibility for a 504 plan. Once they decide your child is eligible, ask for a meeting to start creating a plan. The goal of the plan is to ensure your child’s safety and manage their food allergies while at school. So you’ll want to try to do this well before the beginning of the school year. This way the plan can be in place before school starts.
Use a positive attitude when approaching the school. Think of yourself as part of the team that will work together to make sure your child is safe at school. The key is frequent, calm and confident communication.
What Sort of Accommodations Should I Ask For?
It is good to have some accommodations in mind before you first meet with the school. These are things you think will help your child. Here are some helpful resources:
- Kids With Food Allergies’ school resources page has tips on keeping your child safe, as well as more info on 504 plans.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed guidelines for managing food allergies in school.
- The National School Board Association has also published guidelines.
Some states have created guidelines as well.
Here are some examples of things many 504 plans include:
- Signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction
- List of all allergies and the severity of each (food and environmental)
- Emergency treatment plan, including a list of your child’s medicines
- Training of staff – how it will be done and who will be trained
- Use and training of substitute teachers
- Use and training of delegates, if a full-time school nurse is not on site
- Responsibilities of the parents, child, nurse and other school staff
- Changes in the classroom, cafeteria and other areas. This is things like changing hand soap to nut-free soaps, banning latex balloons, etc.
- Use of food in art projects and other lesson plans
- Storage of safe snacks and a safe non-perishable lunch at school
- Other issues related to your child and their specific food allergies. This includes field trips, the school bus, school parties and other situations where there may be risk
What Happens If There Is No School Nurse on Site?
Not all schools have a school nurse who is on campus every day. Even if your school does, the nurse might not be available when an emergency happens.
In these cases, each state has laws about who can give your child medicine in an emergency. Plus, all states have “Good Samaritan” laws. These say that in an emergency situation, someone who is not a nurse can do their best to help your child.
Whether or not there is a school nurse, it is important to have a written ECP from your child’s doctor. This will tell school staff how to recognize and treat an allergic reaction.
How Do I Create A 504 Plan?
You and the school will work together to create a plan. Rather than start from scratch, a good starting point is a sample 504 plan. Kids With Food Allergies has sample 504 plans you can download for free.
Your school district may also have pre-established forms or formats. You can use these as a starting point and then make changes to fit your child’s needs. But, the federal government has not created an official 504 form.
While there are quite a few details to include, in general, your child’s 504 plan should address:
- Responsibilities – Who will be responsible for what?
- Training – What training will be required? Who will deliver this training? Who will be trained?
- Services – What special services, if any, will the school provide to keep your child’s environment safe? Will they give your child medicine? Change the classroom environment? Make menu substitutions? etc.
- Policies – What policies need to be in place to keep your child’s environment safe?
- Emergency Response – If your child has an allergic reaction while at school, what is the emergency treatment plan?
Do I Have to Get the Plan in Writing?
No. The law does not require that the plan be in writing. However, it is best practice to have a written plan. This reduces the chance for mistakes or misunderstandings. A written plan should be available for all staff members who interact with your child. This includes classroom teachers, substitute teachers, other teachers (gym, music, art, etc.), custodians and lunch room staff. Only the 504 coordinator and the parents need to sign the written plan.
What Do I Do If the School Refuses to Accommodate My Child?
All public schools, and private schools that accept federal funding, are required to accommodate. Some parents, though, run into problems, such as:
- The school refuses to create a 504 plan
- The school creates an unacceptable 504 plan
- The school creates an acceptable 504 plan but then does not follow it
If the school says that they “do not do 504 plans for food allergies,” tell them this is not acceptable under the law.
If the school creates a 504 plan that does not include any of your requests, you do not have to agree to it. In this case, write a letter to the school. State that you do not agree and are requesting another evaluation meeting. Remind them you have the right to be involved with creating your child’s 504 plan. Remain calm and polite at that meeting. Explain why the plan that the school wrote is not acceptable. What parts do you disagree with? Why are your requested changes necessary?
What If the School Does Not Follow the Plan?
If after your best efforts, the school still refuses to cooperate, you can file a complaint with the Federal Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
You may also be able to file a complaint with your state Board of Education. Some states have processes for this.
What Happens If We Move to a New School?
If you have a 504 plan in place when you move, that plan follows your child.
Contact the new school and let them know your child has a 504 plan. Send them a copy of the plan. If they feel it is an appropriate plan, they must put it in place as is.
But quite often a school will say your old 504 plan will not work for the way they do things at their school. In this case, they must follow your existing plan until a new plan is in place. This means having the 504 planning meeting all over again, with different people. This meeting should happen within 30 days of your child arriving at the new school.
What Happens When My Child Goes to College?
A college that receives federal funding must abide by both Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But, because college attendance is not mandatory, colleges are held to a different standard. They have more flexibility. If what you are asking for is a “fundamental alteration” of their program, or if it causes them an “undue burden” (usually a financial burden), they can say no.