District's relaxed policy leaves some parents scratching heads

January 29, 2007 11:00 pm

By Karen Wilkinson

Triplicate staff writer

After spending more than $500 to treat her home, going through a can of hairspray a week to keep her daughter's head bug-free and spending countless hours pulling lice and their eggs from daycare children, Christy Little is considering pulling her kids out of school.

"To tell you honestly, I kind of feel defeated," said Little, a daycare provider whose two children attend Joe Hamilton Elementary School.

She approached the Del Norte County School District Jan. 11, in hopes of getting the in-town school exempt from the district's recently revised lice policy, which allows kids with lice eggs (known as nits) to remain in class.

Board member Bill Parker directed the district to further look into Little's concerns, along with other studies and documentation. Little was asked to provide the district with data backing her argument, but said she hasn't yet had time to do so.

Even so, "I shouldn't have to, as one person, help them," Little said.

In late September the school board abandoned its nit-free policy to allow students with the egg casings stay in class, instead of being sent home, as they were prior to the change.

This revision follows on the heels of other school districts nationwide, which have dropped nit-free policies, based on recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Association of School Nurses and Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Superintendent Jan Moorehouse said the district will continue to enforce the policy "as a pilot year" and the district is interested in learning other data and research.

"It isn't something we feel ready to change or recommend a change in," she said.

Other schools in the country are loosening their policies as well.

The Los Angeles School District lets children with nits return to school, provided they've been treated. The Iowa City School District allows kids with live lice to come to school, as long as they're also treated first.

A Kentucky school district in September dropped its longtime rule that required a doctor's note to prove an infected child was lice-free. Now students must bring in a box top to prove they used an over-the-counter lice treatment.

And the Oakland School District just last week adopted a "no exclusion" policy, allowing children with lice and nits in school.

Though Little has been the only parent to contact the district with her concerns thus far, similar protests have been heard across the nation.

A mother in Michigan has launched a campaign to force her child's school district to return to its no-nits policy.

Little said she may start a petition in support of the district returning to the no-nit policy because "their policy's just not going to work, not for (Joe Hamilton)."

The policy shift began in the late 1990s, when the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended schools abandon no-nits policies.

Harvard's School of Public Health concurred in a study that there was no evidence that keeping infected children out of school decreased the spread of lice.

Not everyone agrees on the research, however.

"This is politics and product marketing, not public health," said Deborah Altschuler, director of the non-profit head lice awareness group, the National Pediculosis Association. She also thinks companies selling lice-killing products supported the research to sell more products.

"The pendulum will swing back," Altschuler said, adding that school officials will be reminded why those policies were in place to start with.

The health and education association chides these new policies, saying they mistakingly assume lice treatments are 100 percent effective in killing lice and eggs.

"Which they are not," a statement says. "Schools are relaxing restrictions because administrators believe children are missing too much class time."

One missed school day in the Del Norte County School District represents a $31 loss for any particular school, as each child, assuming he or she attends regularly, brings in $5,543 annually from the state.

While the association says schools are blaming no nit policies for absenteeism, the real cause is continual reliance on ineffective shampoo treatments.

"Managing head lice by relying on treatments to which the lice are resistant promotes a crisis mentality," a statement says. "A lack of information and preparedness results in too many treatment failures and too many days out of school."

The association advises parents to avoid combating the communicable disease with dangerous pesticides that are designed as neurotoxins and are potential carcinogens.

"These treatments have more risk than benefit and are therefore totally inappropriate for the population of young children and families affected by head lice," Altschuler said. "Families should especially avoid treatments that contain the chemical lindane, recently banned for agriculture by the (Environmental Protection Agency), but unfortunately still prescribed for children with lice."

The only bullet-proof method Little's found is "patience and sitting there picking."

"I've done everything everyone's told me to do," she said. "Nothing works but sitting there with the comb and picking them."

Moorehouse said a half-hour study session is scheduled prior to the Feb. 8 board meeting, in which district nurses Irene Tynes and Kris Hunte, and Healthy Start Center director Martha Scott, will give a presentation.

"It's not so much a rebuttal, but points of view that led us to that point," Moorehouse said.

Little, who spent 16 hours over two days picking the blood-sucking pests and treating a middle school boy's scalp, said there's not enough qualified personnel to do an ample job checking children's heads.

Del Norte's schools share two nurses, two health instructional assistants and four family liaisons, who do school-by-school head checks. School secretaries can also go into classrooms and check children, Moorehouse said.

Even so, after spending five days picking lice and nits off five children's heads who weren't her own, Little doesn't plan to stop fighting for her cause.

"I think that's what (the school district) is hoping, that if they turn a blind eye (the infestation problem) will go away," she said. "And I'm not just going to go away."