As you know, I'm back from my annual summer vacation in Germany, and that means one thing — back to school for my kids! But it's also back to school for thousands of children with diabetes. The process of getting a kid situated for school is a daunting task for any parent. There are school supplies to buy, clothes to argue over, and for kids with diabetes, a sit-down with the school staff to figure out the best way to handle the child's diabetes.
I've asked Allison Blass, my colleague and expert-friend on surviving in school with Type 1 diabetes, to help compile a round-up of "best practices" for concerned parents:
Since kids are away at school a good one-third of the day, we're fortunate that schools are required to follow a Section 504 plan, which is a list of instructions that the school must follow.
The Section 504 plan is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In so many words, it allows parents to use these laws to ensure that, while at school, their child can participate in every activity, and cannot be discriminated against because they also need to manage their diabetes. Since it's a federal mandate, any school receiving federal funding (which is all public schools and any charter school that receives any federal funding) must comply with Section 504. It's important to work with your school or district nurse to meet with the school staff, which in most cases includes the primary teacher (or teachers if your student is in middle or high school), as well as secretaries, P.E. teacher, librarian, music teacher and anyone else that the student takes a class from or interacts with on a regular basis.
Crystal Jackson, Associate Director of Government Relations & Advocacy at the American Diabetes Association, is a leading expert in back-to-school issues and speaks regularly at the annual Children with Diabetes conference. She herself has a daughter with type 1 diabetes, so she is well versed on a personal level with how to deal with the education system.
Crystal has a list of suggestions for parents who are heading back to school:
1. Push for diabetes basics education and training. At a minimum all school personnel who have responsibility for a child should know how to recognize and treat hypoglycemia. A small group of school personnel (in addition to the school nurse) should be trained in all aspects of routine and emergency diabetes care.
2. Make sure teachers are familiar with the individual child's hypo and hyper symptoms.
3. Understand respective responsibilities contained in child's Section 504 Plan or IEP and develop an implementation plan.
4. Discuss any special considerations for special classroom events such as parties, field trips.
5. Be a resource for your child's school nurse and teachers. You can help to identify professionals to help train school personnel and be an ongoing source of information.
6. Agree upon a communication plan and when the school nurse and/or teacher should call you and how to best contact you (phone, e-mail).
You'll also want to address what level of diabetes management your child is capable of. Young kids will need a lot of help with checking their blood sugar and administering injections or a bolus, while middle school and high schoolers may only need a quick phone call to Mom in case they have questions.
What if you're at a private or religious school that doesn't receive federal funding? In fact, all schools that receive federal funds, including charter schools) are prohibited from discriminating against students with disabilities (such as diabetes) under Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, Crystal says.
Religious schools that do not receive federal funds have no legal obligations under federal law, but most do have a published anti-discrimination policy that should help the parent to negotiate necessary services for their child.
Some students, even those who have Sections 504 plans in place, may find they are subject to harassment from teachers or students in the form of glares or rude comments. While this isn't commonly reported, it can happen. Harassment from teachers or classmates is considered discrimination, which, Crystal points out, is prohibited under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Section 504! How do you handle unwelcome comments? Make sure your child knows that it's wrong and it's not their fault. Then, meet with either the teacher or the classmate to make sure they understand that they can't do what they are doing. "Some parents have worked closely with teachers to provide a diabetes lesson to classmates to de-mystify and educate," Crystal says.
If this is your first year heading back to school with the big D, check out the Children with Diabetes website. They have huge resources on diabetes in school! They also have some sample 504 plans if you need inspiration. The American Diabetes Association is an excellent resource on anything discriminatory, so check out their resource section if you have questions. Even with these laws in place, many parents have difficulty getting schools to cooperate. Don't give up! A solid back-to-school plan will help your student feel included and less "different," and will keep them safe while away from you.
So... do you have any back-to-school tips to share, either from your own childhood or with your kids?