Getting back into the swing of the school routine is never fun for anyone—new alarm clock times, bedtime rituals, packing lunches, and homework—yuck! For those of us living with type 1 diabetes, it adds an entirely different set of challenges.
Diagnosed in kindergarten in 1989, one of my tasks was to count out 22 goldfish and make sure the teacher always had a stash of juice boxes in her desk drawer. “Come get them when you need it sweetie,” was always her response. Every school year, from that year forward, my mother and I went to the grocery store to stalk up on protein-filled “peanut butter crackers” and Juicy Juice boxes to store at the nurse’s office, gym locker, and with my homeroom teacher. A day or two before the first day of school, we trucked everything to school, meticulously labeled, with a sheet of instructions for each and every possible “diabetes-related” scenario.
Although the term “504 Plan” did exist, it was not common practice until I entered middle and high school. Soon after I started working as a Safe at School Advocate as part of my working for the American Diabetes Association, I quickly learned a glossary of school-related terms.
Using the alphabet acronym soup of 504 Plan, IEP, or IHP daily, I learned that so many people working in school systems are unaware of the ups and downs of diabetes.
If you’re a parent or caregiver of a child who is gearing up for the school year, I highly recommend either creating or updating your 504 Plan. But what does a 504 Plan mean?
Federal laws such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibit schools from treating people with disabilities—like children with diabetes—unfairly. This means that schools must meet the needs of students with diabetes to enable safe and full participation in all school-sponsored activities. Some children with diabetes have legal protections under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). In addition, many state laws provide legal protections.
Benefits of having a 504 Plan:
- It’s a legal document, so once it’s signed by the parents and the school, it becomes binding. The American Diabetes Association has advocates who provide free guidance and information to help families navigate issues at school and the workplace.
- The 504 Plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP) should align with the Diabetes Medical Management Plan (DMMP) or physician’s order. Be sure to get your child’s provider to complete the plan or order early as diabetes provider practices are very busy this time of year with completing school plan and orders.
- Your plan should be updated yearly with changes to diabetes management and needs. All schools that receive federal funding (like public schools, charter schools, private schools, and religious-affiliated schools) are required to follow Section 504. Private schools (but not religious schools) that don’t receive federal funds still must follow the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- “I already have a ‘one pager’ of what to do if my child goes low.” This isn’t enough. For example, if your child misses 4 days of school in a row because of a pattern of low blood sugars he or she should be allowed to make up missed work and tests without penalty. It is important to include language in the 504 Plan along the lines of: “the student must not be penalized for missing school because of diabetes related appointments/illness.” Then you’re good to go.
A few more examples of when a 504 Plan might come in handy:
- Standardized testing: If you already have a 504 Plan in place, a lot of SAT or state testing programs want to see a copy of the current plan to allow accommodations. This eliminates last-minute scrambling to get a meeting to discuss it.
- Afterschool sports programs: I’ve seen too many kids be denied acceptance to a sports team or a “varsity letter” for missing practices or auditions because diabetes. A 504 Plan can help to ensure this doesn’t happen.
- Water and food in classrooms: Because I took the “old-school” Regular (R) and Lente (L) insulin which required a mid-morning snack, the jealousy soon set in with my classmates through middle school. This allows children to eat whenever they need to.
“But I have a really great nurse and supportive school environment!” You never know when a substitute teacher or new school policy could cause an issue and place the student in an unsafe situation at school. My biggest piece of advice is to start the process early—while things are going well, and involve your child in the 504 Plan whenever possible. It can often take weeks to schedule a meeting with the principal and teacher to review the plan, so allow for plenty of time. Ultimately however, remember this: It’s your child’s school day and academic success, and the safety of their health. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you feel is appropriate!
To see a sample 504 Plan and Diabetes Medical Management Plan (DMMP), click here.
For more information on federal and state laws that protect children with diabetes, visit us online or call the ADA at 1-800-diabetes for help.
—Anna Floreen–GluAnna and Crystal Jackson