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More Lenient Lice Policies May Bug Some Parents

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WASHINGTON (CBSMiami/AP) – Many remember that, as a kid, when a classmate had lice, they had to go home and not return until the lice was gone. But certain schools in some states, like Florida, are changing that policy—meaning students with lice can stay in school.

Sending children with lice and nits, or lice eggs, home is usually protocol as a means of preventing lice from spreading to classmates. But, designed to help keep children from missing class and shielding them from embarrassment, the policy has shifted in some schools.

Also, often customary regarding  lice as well, schools will send notes home to let parents know that a child in class had lice so that they could be on the lookout for lice on their own children.

Schools in Florida are adopting the more lenient lice policy, as well as schools in Tennessee, California, Nebraska, New Mexico, South Carolina and Nevada.

Common Head Lice BERLIN - JUNE 22:  Two head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) crawl on a piece of paper after having been removed from the hair of a little boy June 22, 2007 in Berlin, Germany. Summer weather in Central Europe typically brings with it cases of head lice in schoolchildren.    (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Common Head Lice BERLIN – JUNE 22: Two head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) crawl on a piece of paper after having been removed from the hair of a little boy June 22, 2007 in Berlin, Germany. Summer weather in Central Europe typically brings with it cases of head lice in schoolchildren. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

“Lice is icky, but it’s not dangerous,” said Deborah Pontius, the school nurse for the Pershing County School District in Lovelock, Nev. “It’s not infectious, and it’s fairly easy to treat.”

Some questions and answers about head lice and the new policies.

Q: WHAT ARE LICE AND WHO GETS THEM?

A: Lice are tiny grayish-white bugs that infest a scalp, sucking bits of blood every few hours. Lice don’t jump or fly. They crawl. They are not a sign of poor hygiene.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are 6 million to 12 million head lice infestations each year in the United States among children 3 to 11 years old. While itchy and unpleasant, health experts say lice don’t spread disease and are not a health hazard.

Q: IF THEY’RE NOT A HEALTH HAZARD, WHY ARE KIDS SENT HOME?

A: Schools and parents feared that children in close quarters would spread lice to one another.

Q: WHY THE CHANGE IN POLICY?

A: Itchy children probably had lice for three weeks to two months by the time they’re sent to the nurse, Pontius says.

Classmates already would have been exposed. There’s little additional risk of transmission, she says, if the student returns to class for a few hours until the end of the day, when a parent would pick up the child and treat for lice at home.

Pontius also doesn’t send lice notes. “It gets out who had lice,” she says, and there’s no need to panic parents. Parents with elementary school-aged kids should check their children’s hair for lice once a week anyway, she says. If they are doing that, then there’s really no need for the notes.

Q: WHAT DO THE EXPERTS SAY?

A: The American Academy of Pediatrics updated its guidelines in 2010 to adopt a “do not exclude” infested students recommendation for schools dealing with head lice. It has long encouraged schools to discontinue “no-nit” policies. The itty-bitty nits — which can often be confused with dandruff — cement themselves to the hair shaft, making removal difficult.

The National Association of School Nurses revised its position the following year. In its guidance, the association said children found with live head lice should remain in class but be discouraged from close direct head contact with others and said the school nurse should contact the parent to discuss treatment.

The association doesn’t have figures on how many schools have adopted less restrictive policies. Policies vary by state and often by school district.

Q: HOW DO PARENTS FEEL?

A: Letting kids with untreated lice remain in class doesn’t sit well with some parents.

“I’m appalled. I am just so disgusted,” says Theresa Rice, whose 8-year-old daughter, Jenna, has come home from her Hamilton County, Tenn., school with lice three times since August.

“It’s just a terrible headache to have to deal with lice,” says Rice. To pick out the tiny nits and lice from Jenna’s long blond hair is a four-hour process. Add to that all the laundry and cleaning — it’s exhausting, she says. Rice had to bag up her daughter’s treasured stuffed animals, which remained sealed for weeks even after Jenna was lice-free.

Jenna’s school implemented a new policy in the past year that allows children with untreated lice to go home at the end of the day, be treated and then return to school. The policy, the district said, complies with the guidelines of both the Tennessee Department of Education and the CDC.

Q: WHAT DO OTHERS THINK?

A: The National Pediculosis Association in Massachusetts opposes relaxing bans on lice and says the updated policies spread the bugs. Pediculosis means infestation of lice.

“The new lice policy throws parental values for wellness and children’s health under the bus,” says Deborah Altschuler, head of the Newton-based group. “It fosters complacency about head lice by minimizing its importance as a communicable parasitic disease.”

The association says lice treatment shampoos are pesticides that are not safe for children and not 100 percent effective. The group instead urges parents to screen regularly and use a special comb to manually remove lice and nits from a child’s hair.

The CDC says the nits are “very unlikely to be transferred successfully to other people” — and many schools have dropped their no-nit policies. But supporters of no-nit rules, such as the National Pediculosis Association, say the eggs will hatch new lice and need to be removed before a child is considered lice-free.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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