More students than ever are currently attending school with such chronic conditions as diabetes, cancer, asthma, severe food allergies and seizure disorders.
For more than a decade, I supervised the school nurses in an 11,000-student school district. I often consulted with parents, principals, and nurses about students’ health concerns.
If your child has a specific condition, you are your child’s best advocate. Make sure you are thoroughly informed about your child’s needs and rights. It is critically important for you to communicate with the school principal, school nurse, and your child’s teachers. Be actively involved in helping the school to understand and provide the services and attention your child needs to succeed.
Prescriptions, doctor's orders and other necessary paperwork should be updated by parents at the start of each school year or when there is a change in your child’s treatment. You should also check the school's policies, protocols and guidelines in regard to the handling of specific health conditions.
Often, health issues can be addressed successfully by developing a medical management plan that gives the school guidance on your child’s specific needs. Creating a medical management plan for how your child’s health needs will be handled at school should be a team effort that includes you, your child, school personnel, and your child’s doctors. It is very important that the plan is documented in writing.
Parents often ask about whether they need a 504 Plan to manage their child’s health needs at school. Whereas a medical management plan provides guidelines, a 504 Plan is legally binding. It is your call whether you want to request a 504 Plan for your child.
School districts are required by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. § 794) to provide all students, regardless of disability, with a "free appropriate public education." This provision, found in section 504, applies to any condition - physical, mental, or emotional - that might interfere with a student's ability to receive an education in a public school. That means that no student with a disability can be excluded from school. 504 Plans are comprehensive plans created collaboratively by parents, nurses, and other interested parties to address the student's individual needs.
Severe peanut allergies, diabetes, and seizure disorders are a few of the conditions that may or may not fall under the Rehabilitation Act. For example, 504 Plans may address the use of anaphylactic medications, such as epi-pens, and how staff will be utilized to recognize and respond to allergy symptoms. 504 plans sometimes require nurses to be on school premises at all times to administer glucagon for diabetes or seizure disorder medication. 504 plans may also address specific responsibilities of students and staff.
A student must have a condition that "substantially limits one or more major life activities," to qualify for a 504 Plan. Students have to be evaluated by the school district to determine whether they are eligible. The district will take into consideration the age and capability of the child. If parents are dissatisfied with the outcome, they may appeal.
In addition to the Rehabilitation Act, several other laws protect students with health issues. These include the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. While the Rehabilitation Act offers protection to public school students, the ADA extends protection to students in private schools and day care centers
What are the pros and cons of a 504 Plan?
• A 504 Plan is a legal document. 504 Plans can be enforced in court, or with the United States Office of Civil Rights
• A 504 Plan makes expectations for all concerned -- parents, students, classmates, teachers, aides, nurses, and administrators – crystal clear.
• 504 Plans can provide specific guidelines for handling your child's health issues even if there are changes in school personnel.
• 504 Plans can address your child's health needs in a variety of school-related activities, including field trips, fire drills, lunch, and extra-curricular activities.
• Obtaining a 504 Plan will be time-consuming. There will be an evaluation and assessment of your child and several meetings to arrive at agreement on the specifics of the plan.
• Although you are not required to have a lawyer, you may decide to hire one to represent your child’s interests or to appeal a decision. This could be quite costly.
The bottom line has to do with the seriousness of your child’s symptoms and how capable he/she is to take care of his/her health needs. You are the best judge. It is your decision whether you want to have a legally enforceable plan or if you are comfortable with a medical management plan. Whichever you choose, it is always a good idea to make sure everything is in writing. If you are in doubt, consult with your child’s doctor and an attorney, who has expertise in this area.
Dr. Meryl Ain has worked in several large Long Island, New York school districts as a central office administrator, teacher, and school building administrator. She shares her insights and expertise on her blog, Your Education Doctor. Dr. Ain offers consulting and other professional service to individuals, groups, teachers and school districts.