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Schools face nit dilemma

November 18 2007;  Central Ohio

MARION - Have nits? No go.

That's the policy that a local mother would like to see Marion City Schools instate when it comes to children infested with head lice. The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, recommends to let them go.

Head lice, also known scientifically as pediculosis, are wingless, grayish insects about 2 millimeters in length. They depend on human blood to survive and live close to the scalp.

They are spread by directly contacting an infected person's head or items such as combs, brushes, jackets or hats. They don't cause disease but do cause itching and irritability.

Schools generally have a similar policy as to what happens when a child is diagnosed as having lice. The child goes home.

The debate centers around when the student should be allowed to return. The difference lies within whether or not schools have a no-nit policy, which mandates that students with head lice or lice eggs known as nits cannot return to school until they are gone.

"OK, that's gross!" said Kim Davis, a Marion parent criticizing Marion City Schools for not having a no-nit policy. "We don't know when those will hatch. That child is exposing all others to become infested also."

Davis said she removed her daughter from Taft Elementary School and re-enrolled her in Ridgedale Elementary School after her daughter caught lice three times. She is urging other parents to write a letter to Superintendent James Barney urging the school board to instate a no-nit policy.

Marion City Schools Director of Student Services Sandy Borland said school officials "like to see them as nit-free as possible" but handle each case individually. She said there may be a case where they have a few nits but are allowed to return.

"The best way to educate a student is to have them back in school," said Borland.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that "no healthy child should be excluded from, or allowed to miss school because of head lice, and that 'no nit' policies for return to school should be discouraged." A news release states that the child should remain in class if nits are found but be discouraged from having close direct head contact with others.

Borland said it can be difficult because it is difficult to always spot all the nits. She referred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information on lice that states it can reinfest itself even if a person thinks the nits are gone.

"We can't necessarily say 100 percent of anything," she said. "The best way to educate students is to have them back in school."

River Valley Local Schools health consultant Kelly Wagner agrees with River Valley's no-nit policy, which like other county schools resembles the suggested policy of the North Central Ohio Education Service Center.

"It can be a big problem if you don't get rid of it," she said. "It's very communicable. It's best to eliminate it."

Wagner said whether or not to re-admit a student is still left up to the school nurse's discretion. She often follows up with parents to see if they are following the steps needed to remove the lice.

"You just can't do one part and expect it to go away," she said. "It's not always done correctly."

Both Wagner and Borland said parents and guardians need to make sure to follow all steps on the medication and to use the special combs made to remove lice from hair. Borland said it's also a good idea to wash clothing and bedding used within two days before treatment. The CDC suggests placing any items that cannot be washed in a bag and keeping the bag sealed for two weeks.

Adult lice can live up to 30 days on a host but cannot live off of a host for more than 24 hours.

To stop the spread of lice, health professionals warn against sharing hats, combs and other personal items. Wagner said she also suggests to girls that hair spray or gel or wearing their hair up can help form a barrier against lice.

"It's upsetting for parents," said Marion County Health Department health educator Amy Gorenflo, who said head lice is common. "Anybody can get it. It has nothing to do with how much money you have. It is something that kids pass around."

As far as catching it in schools, both Borland and Wagner said lice tests are often done at the request of a teacher or principal.

Borland said city schools do not have a nurse in each building each day. She also said it can be a time issue when dealing with giving children medication, giving diabetes tests and other medical necessities.

While Marion City Schools does not have the funds to help buy medication for students, Borland said, officials contact the Marion City Health Department or Marion County Job and Family Services if help is needed for severe chronic cases.

Gorenflo urges parents and guardians to use non-pesticide treatments to treat head lice, saying that treatments containing pesticides can cause other health issues. Non-pesticide shampoo kits, which include combs, are available for $10 at the Marion County Health Department. An oil to help rid the hair of lice is available for an additional $5.