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Schools to enforce “no nits” policy

By Neal Simpson/staff writer
Fri Jan 18, 2008

HAVERHILL - It's the kind of problem that can cause anxiety in parents of school-age children and leave students scratching their noggins: head lice.

Sharon Rodgers, the mother of a Walnut Square Elementary School student, wants city health officials to change a policy that allows children infected with lice eggs, also known as nits, to go to school. She said she wants to see a no-nit policy implemented.

Health officials said the current no-lice policy was put in place a few years ago to protect children and is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics in place of the no-nit policy Haverhill formerly used. The recommendation is aimed at allowing children who don't have actual lice to avoid missing school.

Rodgers also wants school officials to immediately notify parents when there is an outbreak of lice, so they can take precautions to ensure their children are protected.

"If there is an outbreak, they just don't tell parents," Rodgers said. "We aren't allowed to know. I'm sure teachers want to tell parents, but they have to adhere to the city's policy."

Eileen Parry, school nurse leader for the city, said there are four cases of lice at Walnut Square Elementary School and that the problem is not uncommon.

"Head lice is out there, and we deal with it the best we can," Parry said. "The big thing is to manually pull the eggs out of the hair."

Walnut Square Principal Larry Marino said he will discuss the policy with the city Health Department.

"We'll be looking at what surrounding towns are doing," Marino said. "I feel the school and nurses are dealing with the problem aggressively, and we'll do the best we can for the kids of Haverhill."

Rodgers' daughter Olivia, a first-grader at Walnut Square, has an autoimmune disorder called alopecia, which can cause her hair to fall out. Rodgers said her daughter came home from school with nits and lice in her hair prior to Christmas, and that the treatment prescribed by a doctor caused more of her hair to fall out. Rodgers said she doesn't want her daughter to go through this again.

"When parents are not notified of a head lice outbreak, parents will not know to check, so children keep reinfecting each other over and over again," Rodgers said. "This has been happening all this school year, and it's still a problem. How can you solve a problem if you allow children to come to school with nits? Nits turn into lice."

Parry said the city instituted a no-lice policy a few years ago. If children have live lice they must go home, she said, but if they carry nits (lice eggs) in their hair they may stay in school - and their parents will be instructed in methods of treatment. Under the no-live-lice policy, an infected child must be checked by the school nurse before re-entering their school.

"We had a no-nit policy years ago, but we changed it to a no-live-lice policy at the recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics," Parry said. "It doesn't help to send children home. Education is key. We work with parents to help them get rid of the nits."

Walnut Square parent Karen Thompson agreed with Rodgers that the policy should allow for notifying parents in a classroom or school when there is an outbreak of lice.

"They sometimes send out general information letters telling you what to look for, but they don't specifically say if there is lice in the school," Thompson said. "Some parents might interpret it as there being a lice outbreak, others may not. We need to address the problem head on, without being told children's names. As a parent, I want to know if it's in my daughter's classroom so I can check her every single day."

Parents should still be checking their children and teaching them not to share hats, combs and coats, Parry said. She said children who are infected are not identified to other parents under the current policy so those children are protected from any mistreatment.

"The no-nit policy can disrupt lives, with nurses singling out children and children being out of school for days, yet it doesn't change the end result," Parry said. "When you notify people, it opens up a lot of issues."

Superintendent Raleigh Buchanan said the no-lice policy has been developed to try not to create more fear of a situation.

"This is the first case in my career where we've had a child with a condition like this," Buchanan said of Rodgers' daughter. "We've offered to move her to another school. The administration is trying to do what it can to protect all kids. It's at the point where we need to be sure we've taken every precaution by checking kids, which we are doing."

Rodgers said the staff at Walnut Square is doing what it can to address the problem, including handing out plastic trash bags to children so they can place their coats and hats and mittens in the bags - which are then hung on hooks.

"They did this to minimize clothing contact," Rodgers said. "The school nurse has been checking children's scalps as well. This helps to inform parents of any problem."