Lice is no reason to keep kids home from school

The Toronto District School Board has a “no-nit” policy when it comes to lice. Emma Waverman agrees with the Canadian Paediatric Society that the practise is outdated.

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Photo: iStockphoto

I found the dreaded letter crumpled at the bottom of the backpack. Someone in my nine-year-old daughter’s class has head lice. Cue the anxiety and find the little metal comb ASAP! It’s lice-check time at my house! As I comb through her hair, my daughter gleefully tells me which friend got sent home from school. Her parents will likely take a forced vacation until they’re sure that their child is in the clear.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has a “no-nit” policy when it comes to lice. If a case is found, the child is sent home immediately and isn’t allowed to return until all the bugs, and those stubborn eggs (called nits), are gone. TDSB is one of the few school boards in Canada that sends kids home. But this policy is being called out as ineffective and outdated by the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS).

Joan Robinson, a member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s infectious disease and immunization committee, told Maclean’s magazine that the no-nit policy doesn’t makes any sense. “Unless you inspect every child, every day, how do you know there isn’t a child in school who does have head lice?” asks Robinson. “It becomes discriminatory.”

Other organizations agree, including the American Pediatric Society and the Harvard Public School of Health, who both encourage schools to abandon the no-nit policy. In Alberta, individual schools set their own policies when it comes to lice. Vancouver schools send a letter home to parents, but the child is allowed to continue to attend classes. Nova Scotia found that too many kids were missing school because of nits and, in 2011, changed their policy so only kids with live bugs are required to stay home.

Initially I was surprised. “What?” I thought. “They just let kids stay in school with lice?” While it may sound ridiculous to those of us who are used to kids being sent home immediately, there appears to be some method to this madness.

Anyone who’s dealt with lice knows it can be a very emotional issue. There’s no question that there’s a giant “ick” factor attached to lice, and the idea of letting kids with lice stay in school is counter-intuitive. But as the recent Maclean’s article explains, research tells us that sending kids home doesn’t stop the transmission of nits and can have unintended effects, such as lost wages for parents. Students lose, on average, one-and-a-half to four days of school, which can leave parents in the lurch. As Robinson points out, “for some parents, if you’re told that your child can’t go to school, that child stays home alone. Sometimes these are kids who are eight or nine years old.”

While there aren’t statistics for the infestation rate in Canada, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that there’s a low contagion rate in classrooms, and believe that school-wide testing is not cost effective. They even tested the carpets of 118 classrooms and didn’t find any traces of lice–even though there were more than 14,000 known cases of head lice on 466 children using those rooms.

By the time schools discover lice on a child’s head, they’ve probably already had it for days, if not weeks. In fact, the telltale scratching may not even start until a month after those little bugs have taken up residence in your child’s hair. By that time, kids have already contact with their friends—they’ve played tag, done art projects together and possibly even shared hats. Therefore, I’m now not entirely convinced now that the TDSB is in the right to send kids home. Sending a child home who has the sticky nits attached to their hair shaft but no live bugs makes even less sense since the nits are not contagious, and not all nits turn into eggs.

In my experience, I can tell you that lice is completely unpredictable. My daughter’s gotten lice during sleepovers with her cousins. There have been cases that seem to appear out of thin air. There’ve been times when only one of my kids had lice, and no one else in our house got it. But, regardless of how many of us have lice, just one mention of the word and I’m scratching my own head for weeks.

Lice are stubborn, but beatable. Once I understood the life cycle of those annoying little bugs, I found it much easier to defeat them. I’m so good at it now that the local lice lady asked me if I wanted to start up my own franchise. (The answer was, and will always be, no.) The key to getting rid of lice is not the gunk you put on their head—it’s the ritual of the combing. If you take one thing away from this post, it’s that you must get a metal comb with long tines. Then comb your child’s hair every other day for two weeks—with the vigilance of a mother ape. The American Academy of Pediatrics found that combing usually damages the bugs and nits enough to render them ineffective and you can avoid those chemical products.

However, you do need bribery. Inspecting each strand of your child’s hair every 48 hours for two weeks is tiresome for you both. Keeping them home from school during that time is the kind of family bonding experience you just don’t need.

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

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