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Some Parents Bugged by New Rule on Head Lice

The L.A. school district's policy allows students with treated nits in their hair to attend classes. Critics say the eggs can hatch and then spread.

April 24, 2006|Tanya Caldwell | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Unified School District has dropped its head lice policy in favor of one that is more lenient, allowing students to miss much less school because of the pesky condition. But that change has left some parents scratching their heads.

For years, the district's policy was clear: Children with head lice were sent home and not permitted to return to school until the lice and all their eggs, or nits, had been treated and removed.

But the no-nit policy kept children out of school for days on end as nervous parents scrubbed shampoos on their sons and daughters, then combed through every strand of hair in search of eggs.

And every time they missed a few, their child would be sent home.

This year the district switched to a no-lice policy. It means that students can return to school with lice eggs in their hair, so long as the nits have been treated.

"The eggs themselves are not infectious," said Dr. Kimberly Uyeda, the school system's director of student medical services. "An egg isn't going to jump from one head to another."

Less than 18% of eggs that are found are hatched, Uyeda said. And "once you treat it, the likelihood that you'll spread it to someone else is very low."

Some parents aren't buying it.

"Are these people crazy?" said a baffled Barbara Bernato, a Riverside Drive Elementary parent.

"They hatch. These kids come in with nits for seven days and then they come back with live lice in their hair," she said.

Other parents suspect the district is searching for ways to keep students in class for the sake of more state attendance dollars.

"If you're absent, then they can't make money off of you," said Riverside Drive Elementary parent Elena Diona of Studio City. "The policy is just messed up."

Diona and dozens of other parents from neighboring schools met with Uyeda and other district officials at the Riverside Drive campus in Sherman Oaks last month to discuss their disgust with the new policy.

Officials tried to dispel suspicions that the policy change was made to boost enrollment and curb student absences because of head lice.

Asthma -- not head lice -- is the No. 1 reason why children miss school, said Karen Maiorca, the district's director of nursing services. Dental appointments are the second leading cause of absences, Uyeda told the parents.

So if the district wanted to increase enrollment, "we certainly wouldn't do it through head lice," Uyeda said.

"We're concerned about the few who miss a lot of school and get held back or potentially drop out. My concern is that the kids have a medical reason to be excluded," Uyeda added.

The no-lice policy came about this year as a result of a periodic update of the district's overall policy on communicable diseases, Uyeda said. It was changed based on recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which released a clinical report on head lice policy in 2002.

The report states that "no healthy child should be excluded from or allowed to miss school time because of head lice. 'No nit' policies for return to school should be discouraged."

The reason? Nits can't be transferred from one child to the next because they're essentially glued to the hair, said Dr. Barbara Frankowski, chairwoman of the pediatric academy's Council on School Health.

Frankowski said shampoos designed to kill lice don't necessarily treat all of the nits, but that shouldn't be enough to stop children from returning to class.

"Even if that egg hatches, it's a baby," Frankowski said. "That little baby louse has to grow up -- which takes 10 days -- it has to mate and then it can lay eggs."

But if parents continue combing and shampooing for two weeks after lice are discovered, Frankowski said, the chances that an overlooked louse will have time to cause another infestation are pretty low.

Frankowski said debate over the policy would be a lot less heated if parents looked at the facts instead of the "gross factor" of having lice.

"It's best for that child to be in school. This isn't a dangerous situation here," Frankowski said. "You can't legally keep kids out of school if they have AIDS or HIV. So why would you keep a kid out of school for a louse on their head?"

The pediatric academy report has caused school districts and health departments across the country, including the California Department of Health Services, to adopt similar policies. The state agency changed its guidelines last fall, said Stan Husted, program manager of the department's head lice prevention and control program.

"One of the reasons that we hung on to it as long as we did is we wanted to stress the importance of screening," Husted said. "Children get head lice from their playmates, not their classmates. So we're not talking about any differences for the parents."

School districts in the Bay Area and San Diego and Orange counties have adopted similar no-lice policies, Husted said.

But Deborah Altschuler, president of the National Pediculosis Assn., said she thought the no-lice policy was a result of misinformation. The bottom line, she says, is that the new policy doesn't make sense.

"It's as basic as the chicken and the egg. Where do they think the chickens come from?" said Altschuler, whose nonprofit organization supports a no-nit policy. "It's all about politics and product marketing in terms of why people actually are so foolish to think that the nits in the hair are not a threat."

L.A. school district officials have met with parents twice, so far, to discuss the new policy, but some were still unconvinced after leaving the school auditorium at last month's meeting.

"I don't care what the statistics say," Bernato said. "This is really cuckoo."

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