Top Three Steps to Saying “Yes” to College During COVID-19
by Caroline Moassessi, FAACT Vice-President of Community Relations
March is a nail-biter for both upcoming college students waiting to hear good news about their college applications and parents grappling with sending off their child with food allergies into the world. Even though times are tough as we slough through the Pandemic, this is such an exciting time. Bright young lives are about to begin the next big adventure of their life!
Let us start with the good news: thousands of students nationwide are managing and thriving at college with their food allergies. The hard news (there is no bad news) is that the Covid-19 Pandemic has tossed a wrench into the traditional head-to-college plan. Some colleges currently function with students on campus, while other institutions are shut down entirely to students or visitors. This should not deter you! Today is your best day to sit down with your student to create your game plan for managing food allergies in college. Today is actually more than your best day; it is your critical moment to start invaluable conversations.
Even if your student has not heard back from their favorite college choices yet, work on your plan now so that you are not left scrambling to learn more about a college in the eleventh hour. Many colleges will be releasing spots for deterred students as late as May 1, 2021.
Launch your plan by visiting the chosen college's website to establish accommodations and learn about its food allergy policy. Look for Student/Resident Life, Newly Admitted, or even Parent and Families links for information about the Disability Services or Academic Support office. If you cannot find it, reach out to your admissions officer for contact information. Your student should take the lead, with you right by their side, guiding them all the way. Please encourage them to send the first email or make the phone call, with you readily available.
Goal: Learn about establishing accommodations and exploring the college's food allergy policy, if they have a written plan already in place. Ask what documents or forms are needed to establish accommodations (online forms, a letter from allergist, etc.). Confirm the date all forms or letters are due to receive accommodations.
Student opportunity: Kick off your student's journey to independence while starting their relationship with the college. Encourage your student to write the draft email and review it together, if needed. If they prefer a phone call, practice or review what they will ask on the phone call.
Pandemic Twist: Since some colleges are still working remotely, be prepared for a longer wait time for a response, and make sure your student notes on their calendar when they need to follow up with the college, if you are not hearing back within a reasonable time. Contact your student's admission officer for help in making contact, if needed.
Reach out to the office managing housing to learn how the college matches roommates and how food allergies are addressed regarding roommate selection. Ask if singles, suites, or on-campus apartments with cooking facilities are available. Ask about the number of medical singles available and what paperwork is required to secure a single, including the date the paperwork is due.
Goal: Learn about singles, shared dorm rooms, and how to get matched with a fellow student who has or understands the needs of people with food allergies and who is willing to be supportive.
Student opportunity: Explore if your student would prefer to live in a single or with a roommate and what are their roommate deal breakers are. Will your child be okay with a roommate bringing in pizza if your student has a dairy allergy?
Pandemic Twist: Many Housing Offices are staffed with student employees who may not be on campus yet. Prepare for slower response times. Some schools have furloughed staff who may not have returned to work, as well. However, patience and follow-up are your friends. Due to various local restrictions, some colleges are adapting their dorm configurations to meet local guidelines. For example, a college that may place four students in one room may be required by authorities to only place two students per room, thus making singles much harder to secure. Ask if housing policy has changed due to Covid-19.
Dig into Dining Services
Take a detailed and deep dive into learning all you can about what food options are available for people with food allergies. A posted online policy is not enough. Now is the time to confirm how you can safely eat on campus. Arrange a call or Zoom meeting with the head of Dining Services or Nutrition (whoever oversees safely feeding all students) to discuss your specific allergens and how the college safely provides meals to students on special diets.
Goal: Learn about what options are on campus and how each meal will be confirmed safe for consumption based on your student's allergens. Discuss the cross-contact risk of allergens during prep, cooking and serving. Ask about the ordering and storage policy of foods containing allergens and allergen-safe foods. Confirm if food service management reads labels and confirms no cross-contact of allergens during manufacturing for premade items or ingredients.
Pro-tip: Don't get discouraged if there is no policy in place or if the college needs education; managing food allergies is still new to some institutions. Offer solutions and resources to help colleges understand. Ask if they are willing to learn and how you can help.
Student Opportunity: This is a student's number one secret weapon for safety on campus: develop a relationship with the people who will be feeding you three times a day! Get to know the staff, ask their names, ask them how you can help them or how is their day going. Do they need food allergen-related food service posters or information about training for their team? If your student is shy, use this time to help them find self-advocating opportunities, such as visiting a restaurant or role playing with you.
Pandemic Twist: Many dining halls and eateries are closed or are short-staffed at this time. Employee turnover in the food industry usually is remarkably high. Therefore, the people you speak with today may not be working on campus in the fall. Therefore, get all food service-related agreements or accommodations in writing to use in future conversations with food service if staffing changes. Reach out to your food service contacts until you and your student meet them mask-to-mask on campus in the fall. Students will want to avoid any surprises on move-in day.
Not all experiences are equal. When you hear of someone's fantastic or horrible experience at a college, know that their experience is unique to them and is based on their needs, health conditions, attitudes, fears, and approaches. I know of one situation where I had a great conversation with a college, while a friend had a terrible engagement with the same college office. Looking closer, our students’ had very different needs, attitudes and approaches.
College life with food allergies can feel overwhelming. Take each step slowly while taking a breath knowing your food allergy family is here to support you!
Show up with your food allergy can-do attitude and ready to be flexible, patient, and willing to educate if needed. Your student will take cues from your approach and will create a rich and exciting college experience.