09/10/07 — Schools change policy on head lice

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Schools change policy on head lice

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 10, 2007 2:19 PM

News of head lice in a school used to cause a wave of panic -- and cleaning everything in sight, from family members' hair to linens and pets.

While it might not create as much pandemonium these days, some perceptions still linger.

Most of what is known about lice, however, is more myth than fact -- they are not a sign of poor hygiene and nor do they jump or fly, although they are contagious by close contact.

What has also changed is how schools are dealing with it.

Recently, teachers at Wayne County Public Schools were informed about changes in guidelines regarding head lice. The biggest shift involves awareness -- no longer will educators be able to broadcast that a child has it, either to other teachers or parents.

"We do have a parent letter that we send home," said Pam Anderson, school health coordinator, noting that the letter is only sent to the parents of the child who has head lice.

Educators are not required to alert anyone about a potential problem, officials said.

And even though contracting head lice isn't inherently related to being at school, for some families the return to the classroom seems a contributing factor.

"When you have got a lot of children in close proximity, they're going to share colds and flu. We see head lice more in elementary children, particularly those doing the nap mat thing," said Allison Pridgen, director of student support services.

For years, schools operated with a "no nit policy," described as a "no excuse, no tolerance policy" Ms. Anderson said.

"You had either lice or the nits and you were sent home and had to stay home until they were absolutely free of lice or nits," she said.

"Probably in the last 15 to 20 years, you certainly didn't want kids at school that have live lice on their bodies," Mrs. Pridgen said. "When we found children that had lice or nits in their hair, we have called parents ... tried to be real proactive with it, but we have seen some recommendations that suggest that public school systems deal with it a little bit differently.

"Some of the changes may come as a surprise to some parents and some school personnel."

The biggest surprise might surround children not being required to remain at home until the problem is resolved, according to the new guidelines.

"The literature now says there's no educational benefit to sending the child home, missing school unnecessarily," Ms. Anderson said.

Calling head lice "more of a nuisance" than a health risk, she said it still warrants attention. Just not enough to justify missing a lot of school.

It operates the way a virus does, she said. And even though lice don't jump or leap, close contact can result in its being spread.

In fact, she cautioned, parents should regularly check everyone in the household because that tends to be the common breeding ground -- through shared bedding or linens, brushes and combs.

Current guidelines for dealing with head lice dictate schools notify parents with the information and provide instructions for solving the problem. The parent letter also explains the importance of cleaning linens and regular head checks.

"It's very very important to get rid of the lice and those eggs," Ms. Anderson said. "When they return to school, we re-check them. If we find that parents have not done something, that's when we take a little bit different action."

The updated policy, however, does not require children to be excluded from school because of head lice.

In the first week and a half of the new school year, Ms. Anderson, who supervises other school nurses in the district, said she has only seen one case.

"At this point, I have not seen any increase at all," she said. "I think it's just in the limelight because we have made some changes."

For the uninitiated, Ms. Anderson offered some tips on recognizing and dealing with the prospect of head lice.

"Lice like to lay eggs where its warm, like the nape of the neck or behind each ear, so that's a good place to start checking," she said. "Parents should check the entire head, usually less than an inch away from the scalp."

The first sign of a problem is intense itching for no apparent reason, she said.

Visually, the lice lay "straw-colored eggs," she said, which could easily be mistaken for dandruff.

"The difference is that when you come or brush the hair, dandruff easily moves," she explained. "When you comb through, lice will stick to the hair shaft."

From a medical perspective, Dr. David Tayloe of Goldsboro Pediatrics said there is only cause to worry when left untreated.

"The lice get their nourishment from the blood vessels within the scalp," he said. "When you see nits that are pretty far out from the scalp, they're probably dead."

In a brand new case where there are live bugs in the hair, nits on the scalp, he said there are plenty of over-the-counter remedies, as well as homemade concoctions that have been found effective.

"You can soak the scalp with a mixture of vinegar and alcohol, half and half, and can comb with a metal fine-toothed comb available in most pharmacies," he said.

Other preparations, such as "Nix" and "Rid" are also popular, Tayloe said, and work well if massaged into dry hair and left on as recommended before washing it out.

Typically, Tayloe said the ones his practice encounters are parents frustrated because they have treated their child five times, unsuccessfully.

In such cases, he said, there are prescription items as well as lotions that might be warranted.