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Head lice cases at FWCS
*As of the end of March
Source: Fort Wayne
Community Schools

School policies vary for lice cases

FWCS, NACS no longer send students home

It starts with a dreaded call from school.

Your child, it seems, has head lice. Pick her up, treat her. We’ll check her head again before she can return to class.

The jolt of a workday interrupted is matched only by a feeling of guilt: My child has lice?

Amy Peckinpaugh, a mother of two Aboite Elementary students and a preschooler, has never gotten that call. But she is happy with Southwest Allen County Schools’ policy to send children home.

“It’s not a health issue, but I think it gives the parents more time to help clean up the head lice, and then it reduces the chances of it spreading to other students,” she said.

Now some schools say that call doesn’t have to be made.

While a trip home and an overnight treatment of anti-lice lotion has been a rite of passage for generations of children, schools are rethinking their policies.

Fort Wayne Community Schools and Northwest Allen County Schools keep students in school. SACS and East Allen County Schools send them home.

FWCS changed its rules four years ago. Only in extreme cases are students sent home with a one-day excused absence, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.

The policy change came after the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2010 provided updated guidance that says “no healthy child should be excluded from or miss school because of head lice, and no-nit policies for return to school should be abandoned.” The National Association of School Nurses takes the same position.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites those two groups in urging students with lice to be treated but not sent home from school.

While a nuisance, head lice aren’t known to spread disease. A fully grown louse is the size of a sesame seed. They feed on blood and attach their eggs – nits – near the base of the hair shaft. Lice can tickle as they move and cause itching if a host is allergic to their bites, the CDC says. They spread by head-to-head contact and are most common in children ages 3 to 11.

One treatment is usually enough to control head lice, said Carroll High School nurse Ann Kline. NACS’ procedure is to ask parents for permission to treat a student, she said, not to send the student home from school. A nurse then checks the student before he or she returns to class.

Lice are more frequently found in elementary schools because younger kids have more contact with one another, said Kelly Dawson, SACS head nurse.

“They’re playing dress-up, or just a lot closer contact,” she said. “At the secondary level, they’re in their desks all day. They don’t really have that head-to-head contact ever.”

SACS’ head lice policy requires students with an active infestation to be sent home for treatment and be evaluated by school staff before returning to the classroom. If more than five nits are found, the child must return home for further treatment.

Except for the nit count, EACS has a somewhat similar policy. Students are picked up by a parent, and a nurse determines whether they can be readmitted following treatment, spokeswoman Tamyra Kelly said.

Dawson, who has been in her position since November, said she is aware of the CDC recommendation, which suggests that infected students not be sent home early but be treated before they return to class. She said the district’s policy could be tweaked to be less restrictive.

“I would like to see it changed,” she said. “I think it’s definitely something that wouldn’t hurt.”

Dawson said she has not heard of a head lice case since she started her job five months ago.

In the past four years, FWCS, with more than 30,000 students, has averaged about 260 lice cases a year, or less than 1 percent of students. That’s in line with national estimates, said Mary Hess, FWCS head of health services.

“Really, since they made a change in the policy four years ago, we’ve seen no increase in the number of cases, which I think is what people worry about the most,” Hess said. “ ‘Oh, if you’re not sending them home, then it’s going to go rampant, and there’s going to be all kinds of problems with an outbreak.’

“And really, we have no evidence of that at all.”

The number of FWCS head lice cases has gone down since the new policy took effect. Hess isn’t sure why.

People used to “freak out” about it more, she said, and when the policy was stricter, the district had to train non-medical staff to police the problem when a nurse wasn’t in a building. That might have led to more misdiagnoses, Hess said.

When lice are found, the school staff tries to educate the parents, give them supplies if they have a financial need and follow up with kids to make sure the situation is under control, Hess said.

“All of those techniques have served us well, and I think that’s part of the reason we’re not seeing lots of problems,” she said.

Rebekah Hubley has four children enrolled in FWCS. She says she understands the reasoning behind the policy change, but she doesn’t agree with it. None of her kids has had head lice.

“To me it’s preventable,” she said. “No, it’s not going to hurt them. They’re not going to the hospital. It’s a nuisance.”

While Peckinpaugh, the SACS parent, sees no need to change policy, she said it might be that head lice have not posed much of a problem in the district.

“I suppose if my kid had head lice and was sent home, I’d think differently about it,” she said. “Head lice just doesn’t seem as common as it was when I was a kid. I can’t even think of anybody whose kid has had head lice, honestly.”