MANCHESTER — According to city health officials, the Manchester school district typically averages 50 cases of head lice a month. Those numbers are news to parents, thanks to a policy that opts out of informing anyone but those close to the affected student.
“Widespread notification could cause undue stress and finger-pointing,” said Manchester Health Director Tim Soucy, whose department sets policies involving communicable diseases for the local school district. “There can sometimes be a stigma attached to someone that is found to have head lice, which could lead to prolonged absences from school. We are trying to keep kids in school as much as we can.”
The policy, though mirrored in districts across the state, has parents scratching their heads.
“I understand they wouldn’t want everyone to know their kid has lice, but if there’s lice in my kid’s class, I’m sorry but I want to know,” said Tricia, a mother of a student at Weston Elementary School, who did not want her full name used. She said she was unaware that only the parents or guardian of an affected student would be notified.
“I think they should send a letter home to all of us, saying there was a case,” said Marie, also a mother of a student at Weston. “The kids with lice don’t have to be named in the letter. I don’t like hearing about it on Facebook.”
“We stopped categorizing head lice as a communicable disease last year,” said Soucy. “It’s more of a nuisance than a public health threat, and there’s very little threat of spreading lice person to person.”
When asked if there was any situation where a letter would be sent home to multiple families, such as several cases of head lice in the same class, Soucy said no.
“I don’t think there’s a scenario where we would change that,” said Soucy.
According to the policy adopted by Manchester schools, “The School Nurse shall conduct periodic examinations of students’ heads at appropriate times. Such examinations may be of an entire class or of students selected at random. Students found to have pediculosis (head lice and nits) by the School Nurse shall be immediately sent home. The student may be readmitted after appropriate treatment and examination by the School Nurse.”
“I think it’s a good policy,” said Manchester Superintendent of Schools Dr. Debra Livingston. “It’s the same policy that has been in place in any district I’ve worked in. The prime goal is to keep children in school, healthy and ready to learn. I haven’t heard a single complaint about it since I came here.”
An estimated 6 to 12 million cases of head lice infestation occur each year in the United States in children 3 to 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Soucy said during the 2012-2013 school year, there were 88 reported cases of head lice in the Manchester school district in October, 86 in November, 66 in December, 17 in January and 7 in February.
“That’s when we stopped categorizing it as a communicable disease,” said Soucy. “We stopped tracking it, and I don’t have records beyond that.”
According to a bulletin issued by the New Hampshire School Nurses’ Association (NHSNA) in November, head lice can’t be passed on through shared use of hats, scarves, and combs.
“It’s all about louse biology,” writes Gerri Harvey, RN, MEd, of the NHSNA. “A live louse needs warmth, humidity and food to survive and reproduce. All three are found on the human head, as they live on human blood. Because they stay close to the scalp where these are present, no self-respecting louse is going to choose a hat, scarf or comb over a human head.”
According to Harvey, head louse eggs — also known as nits — can’t attach themselves to hard surfaces like sofas, cushions, desks or bus seats where they could hatch and be picked up by others.
The Goffstown school district has a similar policy to Manchester, whereby students are allowed to remain in class on the day of a diagnosis of head lice, provided the student is “comfortable” doing so, and a parent or guardian is notified. Recommendations for treatment are also sent home with the student. Children who may have been in close contact with the diagnosed child can be checked or screened for lice by staff.
Teachers usually detect head lice infestations when students start to regularly scratch their heads.
If live lice are found, parents are notified by phone with directions for treatment and management. Written information is also sent home.
Lice are about the size of a sesame seed, and are usually brown in color. The diagnosis is made after nits, or small pearl-gray eggs, are found attached to the hair within a quarter-inch of the scalp.
Most children can safely return to school after treatment with a shampoo such as NIX, recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The student is checked when they return to school and one week later to make sure all the lice are gone,” Soucy said.