Schools letting kids with hair lice stay in class

Two head lice seen under an electron microscope. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Two head lice seen under an electron microscope. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

For years now, students found with lice in their hair were sent home and weren’t allowed back to school until the lice were gone. Not anymore.

The Associated Press writes in this story that some schools in a number of states have relaxed the rules, allowing students with lice to stay in class. The reason? School officials figure that kids actually are contagious well before anyone realizes they have lice, so the damage has already been done. In fact, the American Association of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses advocate that schools don’t force kids with lice to stay home.

Lice, if you’ve been fortunate enough to escape it, are very small grayish-white parasitic insects that can live on people’s heads and bodies. Schools often deal with outbreaks of head lice, which usually spread by close person-to-person contact. (This is why moms tell their children not to use someone else’s brush or wear someone else’s hat.) Lice attach themselves to the scalp and neck and attach eggs to the base of the hair shaft. They crawl rather than fly. Lice aren’t a health hazard, and their appearance has nothing to do with hygiene, but they are itchy and, well, revolting, and getting rid of them isn’t easy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Students diagnosed with live head lice do not need to be sent home early from school; they can go home at the end of the day, be treated, and return to class after appropriate treatment has begun. Nits may persist after treatment, but successful treatment should kill crawling lice.

Head lice can be a nuisance but they have not been shown to spread disease. Personal hygiene or cleanliness in the home or school has nothing to do with getting head lice.

Both the American Association of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses advocate that “no-nit” policies should be discontinued. “No-nit” policies that require a child to be free of nits before they can return to schools should be discontinued for the following reasons:

Many nits are more than ¼ inch from the scalp. Such nits are usually not viable and very unlikely to hatch to become crawling lice, or may in fact be empty shells, also known as casings.

Nits are cemented to hair shafts and are very unlikely to be transferred successfully to other people.

The burden of unnecessary absenteeism to the students, families and communities far outweighs the risks associated with head lice.

Misdiagnosis of nits is very common during nit checks conducted by nonmedical personnel.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there are 6 million to 12 million head lice infestations each year in the United States among children 3 to 11 years old. People who have lice may feel something moving in their hair, or find their scalp and/or neck start to itch.

Here’s more information about lice from the CDC.

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