Head lice policy could bug families

October 13, 2011|Alicia Notarianni | Making Ends Meet

I wince as I write this.

My disdain for head lice just might border on phobia. Still, I'm convinced that my thoughts are founded in ample reason to share.

I was mortified to read about the Washington County Health Department's new policy regarding attendance of students with evidence of head lice in public schools.

According to a story that ran in The Herald-Mail on Sept. 22, the department has changed its policy so children with nits that are a certain distance from the scalp can continue to attend school. Previously, they could not.

The report said the decision was based on best practices through the American Association of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses. It cited a program manager for school health as saying that children with nits a half-inch or more from the scalp can go to school because those nits, or lice eggs, are less likely to survive.

Less likely? I wonder at what degree of "likely" that leaves them.

A National Institutes of Health website refers to lice as "extremely contagious" and says medicated shampoo treatments "don't usually kill all nits." Parents have no way of knowing after shampoo treatment which eggs are empty shells, which have dead bugs or which remain viable. That is why nit removal has always been part of recommended treatment.

Just one viable egg can hatch a louse. Literature accompanying lice shampoos says female lice can lay five to 10 eggs a day, which is potential for a lot more bugs crawling on a student's head, sucking blood from it and crawling onto others in class. Then those students take the bugs home to share with families.

As a parent, I wish the health department and the Board of Education would reconsider the standard. If they choose to base their decisions solely upon lab research without taking into account actual experiences of families within the school system, they should at least take other precautions to prevent the spread of lice.

I've routinely seen students in school sharing headphones in the computer lab and teachers directing children in back to back — read, hair to hair — games. This is on top of students simply huddling to brainstorm or standing closely, hair to hair, in lines.

I parented for 13 years without ever encountering lice. Then one of my children picked it up from a schoolmate who seemed to have chronic head lice. This schoolmate would be sent home, his parents would say he'd been treated and he'd be back at school the next day. Head lice were rampant that entire school year. Many tired, frustrated parents told me they felt sick over sending their kids to school.

At the time, I'd just had my fourth baby. My newborn got it from his sibling. I tried to keep a sense of humor about it, but imagine nursing an infant and spotting a bug feeding on his head. It bothered me.

Getting and staying rid of head lice — especially in a situation where we felt like we were working against the system—  was financially, physically and emotionally exhausting.

It can be less so when both parents and public agencies act considerately and responsibly.

For information on prevention, treatment of head lice, go to

Alicia Notarianni is a reporter and feature writer for The Herald-Mail. Her email address is

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