Oakland Schools Revise Policy on Head Lice

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The Oakland public schools have quietly re-evaluated their policy on head lice. Students with the annoying parasites are no longer barred from school. Officials say the new policy is a more rational approach to how lice are spread.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Wonder if tin foil could defend against head lice, which is the subject of our next story. Many parents know this drill. You get the dreaded call from the principal to come pick up your kid. You have to use this special shampoo and wash the sheets and spend hours combing your child's hair, searching for tiny eggs called nits. And of course there's no school. Some California school districts this year are quietly rethinking their zero-tolerance approach to these pests.

NPR's Elaine Korry has more.

ELAINE KORRY: Third-graders jumping rope on the playground at Franklin Elementary School in Oakland. Any one of these unsuspecting kids could have head lice. It used to be at the first hint of an outbreak sirens went off and the anti-lice brigade mobilized. Inspecting scalps, summoning parents and banishing any child who scratched. Today:

Ms. JOAN EDLESTEIN(ph) (Healthcare Coordinator, Oakland Schools): The child is not sent home during the day.

KORRY: Joan Edlestein, healthcare coordinator for the Oakland schools came up with a new policy.

Ms. EDLESTEIN: When the child goes home at the end of the day, the child brings a letter home to the parent.

KORRY: And the child can come back to school the following day?

Ms. EDLESTEIN: Yes.

KORRY: Treated or not?

Ms. EDLESTEIN: Yes.

KORRY: Now, I mean that freaks some parents out.

Ms. EDLESTEIN: Yes it does. I freaks some teachers out, it freaks some administrators out. But that's because of all of the myths that we have about lice.

KORRY: Let's face it, most people don't like bugs, certainly not ones that live near the scalp sucking their child's blood. Some people think lice carry disease, that they're a sign of poor hygiene or poor parenting. Many are convinced lice spread easily. All untrue, says Edlestein.

Ms. EDLESTEIN: Lice don't jump, they don't fly, they don't swim.

KORRY: Lice can spread with direct head-to-head contact or indirectly by sharing hats or brushes. But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, that happens far less often than people think. Live lice can't survive for long away from a warm scalp. And according to Dr. Barbara Frankowski(ph), who wrote the group's guidelines, lice eggs stay put.

Dr. BARBARA FRANKOWSKI (American Academy of Pediatrics): They're very firmly attached to the hair shaft, as any parent who's tried to take nits from their child's head already knows. And the nits are not going to go from one child's head to another.

KORRY: Frankowski says of course lice are a hassle and they need to be treated, but they carry no health risk whatsoever. And that's why the Academy of Pediatrics, the Harvard School of Public Health, and the National Association of School Nurses are all agreed.

Dr. FRANKOWSKI: Once the child is treated and it's just a few nits left in the hair, that child should be in school.

KORRY: But that's not the case in most school districts in the country. Last years Los Angeles and San Francisco quietly relaxed their policies, allowing children with nits back in class with proof of treatment. This years Oakland went a step further. Instead of excluding students with live lice, they discourage all students from having head-to-head contact or sharing personal items.

Here at Franklin Elementary School, some parents, like Kenya Ashford, aren't buying it.

Ms. KENYA ASHFORD (Parent): I think children should be sent home because head lice is extremely contagious.

KORRY: IN two weeks, Franklin will hold its first parents meeting since the new policy was announced. Principal Jeanette McDonald knows that parents like Ashford will have a lot of questions, and she's ready.

Ms. JEANETTE MCDONALD (Principal, Franklin Elementary School): I hope they do. I hope they come. I'm looking at this as a wonderful opportunity for education.

KORRY: McDonald hopes to talk to parents about what she calls real health problems. She says asthma, diabetes and obesity, all prevalent at her school, are far more dangerous to children than a few pesky lice.

Elaine Korry, NPR News, San Francisco.

INSKEEP: There are a lot of myths about lice, and you can find out the facts and the best ways to tackle these critters from a safe distance. Because nobody has ever gotten lice online. Go to NPR.org.

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