School nurse Mary Beierle is unfazed by flocks of head lice in a young student’s hair. She simply sends the student back to class, she said.
“I alert the parents, but we allow the child to finish out the school day,” said Beierle, district nurse for the Palos Heights School District in Illinois, who thinks back-to-school head lice checks are a waste of time. Kids are usually back to school the next day.
Beierle’s “live and let lice” attitude may surprise any parent whose lice-infested child has been banished from school until the last nit has died off. But this more relaxed policy has the support of top health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Academy of Pediatrics and National Association of School Nurses.
“They’re not dangerous and it’s more important for kids to go to school,” said Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
There are as many as 12 million head lice infestations each year among American kids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the bugs – while a nuisance – are essentially harmless. The sesame seed-sized critters and their nits, or eggs, can cause itching and discomfort, but they don’t spread disease. They aren’t even particularly contagious, Shu said.
“Just being in same classroom is not going to give you lice,” she said. “You need close head-to-head contact.”
Shu recommends children avoid sharing hats, combs or brushes and steer clear of huddle situations with touching heads. Coats and personal belongings are better-off stored in a personal locker or a bag rather than mingled together on hooks, she added.
Treatment for lice usually involves saturating the hair with an over-the-counter rinse or paying upwards of $100 an hour for a lice removal service. If the bugs survive and continue to move on the head, you need to repeat the treatment or consider a prescription-strength medication, Shu said.
By the time a school has seen a head or two of lice, the critters are already spreading, Shu said. At that point, removing a child from school does little to stop them from making the rounds.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and National Association of School Nurse support the end of “no nit” policies that ban children from school until they’re completely nit-free. And the CDC says that nits remaining after treatment are typically too far from the scalp to hatch into crawling lice.
Many leftover nits are empty shells, known as casings, according to the CDC.
“Getting kids back into class sooner is less traumatic for the child and they don’t miss out on so much class time like they used to in the past,” Beierle said. “It cuts back on the stigma of lice, too.”
Beierle said her relaxed school district’s relaxed policy on lice worried some parents at first. But after an intensive campaign that involved meetings and pamphlets, she said she’s seen less pushback.
“Once they get past their misconceptions about lice, most parents understand and agree with the policy,” she said.
And despite the more laissez-faire rules, Beierle’s district sees only a couple cases of lice a year, she said – a number on par with rates from the zero-tolerance era.