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School District to Examine Head Lice Policy

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head lice
Male human head louse, Pediculus humanus capitis. Photo: Wikipedia/Gilles San Martin

Washoe County School District health officials said Tuesday they plan to form a committee to review latest research, discuss findings, and possibly make recommendations for a revised head lice strategy.

Currently, students with lice aren’t excluded from school or school activities. This upsets many parents, mainly because the public is misinformed about lice, said Dana Balchunas, district director of student health services.

Head lice are wingless insects that spend their entire lives on human scalps, feeding on blood.

District officials advise against excluding children from school since lice doesn’t spread diseases. They also say managing lice shouldn’t disrupt the educational process.

“There’s a fear factor,” Balchunas told trustees during a board meeting. “Its creepy to talk about. The emotional reaction from parents is, ‘Get that kid out of there.’”

Balchunas said she gets numerous phone calls about lice but hasn’t got one concerning viral meningitis, which has been discovered recently in several schools. Some people go as far to suggest custodians fumigate an entire school if one child there has lice.

A graph from the WCSD presentation on head lice policy.
A graph from the WCSD presentation on head lice policy.

“Lice can’t jump or fly and they do not infest buildings,” Balchunas said. “Lice has no ability to cling to bus seats, material, or other textiles. We have an obligation to educate parents and stakeholders about this.”

Lice can affect anybody but it’s most prevalent in girls ages 3 to 11, Balchunas said. Direct contact with heads causes lice to spread more than sharing hats or hairbrushes, and lice often goes undetected. It affects between 9 million and 12 million children nationwide annually, she said.

If a student is found to have lice, a letter is sent home to parents asking the child be treated. If the parents are unresponsive or don’t have resources to buy products, the school nurse will provide ongoing support, community referrals, resources, and education about treatment and control.

In extreme situations, case workers have gone to student homes to treat their heads, Balchunas said.

John Mayer
John Mayer

At the start of the school year, a letter was sent home to parents with information from Student Health Services regarding the importance of teaching children good health habits, such as hand washing, not sharing food utensils, and sneezing in their “sleeve,” among others. The letter also included a paragraph about lice.

Trustee John Mayer said when such letter is sent home with a bunch of other papers at the start of the school year, it’ll tend to be ignored. Waiting a few weeks and sending it by itself might get more readers, he said.

A retired elementary school principal, Mayer recalled telling a parent to buy “RID” to treat their child’s lice but the parent said there was no “Red” at the pharmacy. He also remembers showing students with extreme cases how to treat their hair.

“You’ve really got to educate parents and you can’t do it on the first week of school in a letter,” Mayer said. “It’s got to be one-on-one.”

Carla O'Day
Carla O'Day
Carla has an undergraduate degree in journalism and more than 10 years experience as a daily newspaper reporter. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to the Reno area in 2002 and wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for 8 years, covering a variety of topics. Prior to that, she covered local government in Fort Pierce, Fla.

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