Bend-La Pine Schools is considering a policy change that would remove head lice from a list of illnesses that require students be kept out of classrooms.
According to Jay Mathisen, the district assistant superintendent for human resources and strategic planning, administrators and nurses already allow students who have only nits — eggs, not live lice — and who have undergone treatment for the parasites to stay in class.
“What this is really doing is bringing policy in line with what our practice has been,” he said.
The district’s communicable diseases policy currently places head lice in the same category as communicable diseases like tuberculosis, scabies and the measles. It requires that any time a school administrator believes students or employees have been exposed to the restrictable disease they will be sent home and can’t return until they provide proof from the medical community that they’re free of the disease.
The proposed change, which the school board first read last week and which will be brought back to the board for approval at a later date, would remove head lice from that list.
“That’s based on the best thinking out there, that it’s not a disease,” Mathisen said. “It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t still direct a student to stay home who had lice; we do that.”
According to the Oregon Department of Education’s communicable disease regulations, head lice can be considered a school-restrictable condition at the discretion of local school administrators or a local public health authority.
“For the last several years our policy has been when nurses check kiddos, if they have live lice they are sent home,” Mathisen said. “If a nurse checks kiddos and they just have a nit or two or three but no live lice, and they can confirm that they’ve been treated then we’re not sending those kiddos home. ... This (policy change) doesn’t change what our practice has been the last several years, and it falls in line with what appears to be the trend around the country and even, somewhat, in our state.”
An executive summary provided to school board members last week stated “most recent studies and findings show that pediculosis is not a health hazard and risk of transmission in the normal school environment is low.”
Board member Andy High said he’s still reading information given to him by the district to be sure he’s comfortable with the policy change.
“I need to be reassured that if there’s a problem and a student needs to go home ... that we can still make that happen, so other students aren’t at risk,” he said. “I want to make sure, and parents are sure, that the district is doing everything it can to protect students and make sure if something does break out we’ll prevent the spread.”
The district considered several resources when determining whether to remove head lice from the list.
Among them, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “students diagnosed with live head lice do not need to be sent home early from school; they can go home at the end of the day, be treated, and return to class after appropriate treatment has begun. Nits may persist after treatment, but successful treatment should kill crawling lice.”
The CDC statement points to other positions by the American Association of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses, both of which Bend-La Pine Schools used in considering changes to its policy.
The two associations say “no-nit” policies, which require students to be free of nits before they can return to the classroom, are unnecessary.
That’s because, according to the CDC and the school nurse association, nits are often misdiagnosed, many nits are unlikely to hatch, and are stuck to hair shafts and therefore unlikely to transfer to others.
“The burden of unnecessary absenteeism to the students, families and communities far outweighs the risks associated with head lice,” the CDC states.
In June the Oregon School Boards Association included head lice as a “hot topic” on its website.
OSBA pointed to the associations’ and CDC’s position on the subject, and noted in its update that since it’s up to local school boards to determine their policies, it would continue to offer samples of “nit-free” and “with nits” policies. However, OSBA has removed the idea of immediate exclusion from policy examples.
In Redmond, the school district has a policy restricting students from school only if they have live head lice. Students with nits are allowed to attend school. Culver School District does the same.
Crook County’s policy simply states it will follow state guidelines relating to communicable diseases, and Sisters and Jefferson County school districts likewise make no clear statement about how they handle head lice.
Mathisen doesn’t expect the school district will create a new policy dedicated solely to dealing with head lice.
“I think we have a good handle on practices that are working and I think we have systems in place that let us make the best decisions without (a separate policy),” he said. “I don’t think we need to have a separate policy on lice. That seems to be getting a little nitpicky.”
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