Last night, my 3-year-old daughter made soft, singing noises while she dipped a plastic boat in and out of the bubbles of her bath, oblivious to my actions of raking a fine-toothed metal comb through her mop of curls that reach her shoulders when they are wet.
Just a few months ago, the sight of a hairbrush in my hand caused her to shriek. Bath time was a battle. I was certain her first memories would be the pain from my tugging tangles out of her hair. Then, that fateful day came when the sun shone on her little forehead, still from sleep in her car seat. I bent over to carefully unbuckle her and saw the telltale bug crawling through her blond curls. Head lice.
I was no stranger to this terror. My oldest daughter seems to attract them. Maybe it is her mass of light-brown hair, so thick I can barely get a comb through it. Maybe it is her many invitations to sleepovers with several friends where they try on five different outfits. When I first discovered my oldest had them, my youngest was a newborn. I was on my own, barely making ends meet, scrambling to find work I could do at home to pay rent. Dropping $20 on a tiny bottle of shampoo that claimed to kill the bugs that had invaded our house was an expense I could not afford. Plus, I had to wash and dry everything I could — including stuffed animals — on high heat, vacuum, and repeat a week later. I bagged most of it instead.
My oldest had been in kindergarten that year, and I faintly remembered a line in the classroom newsletter telling me they had a report of lice. There was not any mention of ways to check for it, or how to prevent it. This was several years ago, when the school nurse came around with her flashlight to check every head. I knew if she found any, she would send those kids home because of the district’s “No Nits” policy. So, I didn’t worry. Lice happened to other people. Not my daughter, who stayed in the bath so long, her fingers wrinkled before I convinced her to get out of the tub.
When I found lice last spring, I sent an email to my daughter’s teacher. I half expected her to tell me that, even though I had used the shampoo and spent an hour combing her hair, my daughter would have to stay at home until the nits were gone. The school nurse called me instead.
“We don’t send students home anymore,” she cheerfully said, explaining that only 10 percent of lice are transferred at school. Because of this, they no longer checked students, did not call parents to pick up their children and did not notify the parents there had been a report. My daughter’s teacher did not send out a note, email or even include the infestation in the newsletter that week.
I applauded the idea of not sending children home. Low-income families don’t need the added hardship of missing work on top of the expense of ridding themselves of lice and nits, along with the stigma their kid would experience of being the one with cooties. The expense of lost wages, in addition to the added expense of laundry and buying shampoos and kits, could mean less rent money, not just an inconvenient afternoon. But shouldn’t there be a system in place to notify parents in the chance their child is part of that 10 percent?
As kids are back in school, connecting with friends, and putting their heads together, either by taking selfies or studying, lice transferring from one head to the next seems inevitable. But there was no mention of that possibility in the student handbook my daughter’s school sent home.
In deciding to allow students who have lice to come to school, the flip side should be educating parents on what to look for, how to prevent them and how to get rid of them without spending $50 on chemical-laden shampoos, salon treatments and loads of laundry. Keeping lice out of schools should be a herd immunity type of attitude. Schools should send home brochures with a plastic comb attached in an envelope. If every parent knew that the best way to prevent lice from spreading is by looking for them, cases decrease dramatically.
Nobody wants to admit their kid is the one with lice. Not only because of the work involved in getting rid of them, but because lice are still associated with dirt, grime, neglect and often poverty. Yet, when stomach bugs run rampant, we all accept that it will run its course and we will be spending a day doing laundry along with everyone else. If parents admitted they are part of the 6 million to 12 million cases of lice reported a year, maybe it’ll be on par with stomach bugs, and not shrouded in secrecy.
More than that, I want a way for parents to notify the school their child has lice, anonymously if needed. I want to get a text message every time this happens so I know to check more than once a week for a while. If parents know how many times others are finding lice on their kids’ heads, maybe other parents will not hide their own discoveries in shame.
Stephanie Land’s work focuses on social and economic justice as a writing fellow through both the Center for Community Change and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Her memoir, “MAID,” is forthcoming through editor Krishan Trotman at Hachette Books. She lives in Missoula, Mont., with her husband and two daughters.