A Real Head Scratcher
Schools are struggling with how best to handle lice
Two weeks ago, parents of 26 children at Candler Elementary in North Carolina got the dreaded call: Lice! Come get your child, and keep him home until every last egg, or nit, is gone. At Chabot Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., meanwhile, even children with live lice will no longer miss any class. Parents will be discreetly informed at the end of the day so the lice can be wiped out overnight; nits are not an issue. Nora Cody is thrilled. "Last spring, I was called out of a meeting 10 minutes after school started because my child had nits," says Cody, the mom of a then fourth grader. "It turns out it was just a bit of fluff."
What's the right way for schools to cope with lice? It's a question on the agenda of many a board these days. The time-honored approach-not a single nit allowed-has created a dilemma in the No Child Left Behind era; many states use attendance rates as a measure of school performance, and lice outbreaks are thought to account for 12 million to 24 million missed days a year. In 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics proclaimed that "no nit" policies are overkill, since the vast majority of kids with only nits will not end up with lice. Los Angeles; Madison, Wis.; and Allentown, Pa., are among a growing number of districts that, like Oakland, are relaxing the rules. Other administrators are standing firm-and lots of parents approve. "I think the policy is great," says Karin Von Dohlen, one of the Candler moms recently called in. "You want to nip it in the bud." She spent hours of the unexpected day off removing nits from 7-year-old Sarah's head so she could go back to school the next day.
No bugs. Nobody disputes that the live lice have got to go. The tiny blood-sucking creatures, no bigger than this t, don't cause any health problems other than itchy bites, but they spread easily by crawling onto any hair strand within reach. Research has shown that 9- and 10-year-old girls, who favor group hugs, are the most likely to get infested. If she's not stopped, a female louse can lay more than 100 nits on a child's head over her 30-day life span, dozens of which will hatch about 10 days later.
But opinions diverge on what should happen once the bugs themselves are gone. While nits stick tightly to the hair shaft and don't spread from child to child, most survive the over-the-counter treatments-and can hatch, starting the cycle again. The AAP guidelines, which call for monitoring children with nits, "are bizarre," argues lice expert Craig Burkhart, a dermatologist at the Medical University of Ohio and author of a dozen studies on the bugs. He's concerned about recurrent outbreaks, given that lice are rapidly growing resistant to existing treatments. But a 2001 study conducted by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-the basis for the AAP recommendation-found that more than 80 percent of kids who have only nits never become reinfested.