For generations, children with signs of head lice were summarily sent home by the school nurse to their everlasting shame. Now schools have become less nitpicky.
With the backing of some major health organizations, a majority of schools across the country are allowing youngsters to stay in class if they have nits — that is, lice eggs — but no crawling lice in their hair.
It's a change recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses, and it has been welcomed by many educators and parents, who worried that students were missing too much school, moms and dads were missing work, and children were being made to feel ashamed.
"Our children miss enough school without having to add this to it. The no-nit policies are as much a nuisance as the pests that we're dealing with," said Astrid Cruz, a mother of three from Palm Coast, Fla.
When Cruz's daughter got lice in second grade and was removed from class under the school's no-nit policy, Cruz had to beg administrators to let the girl ride the school bus home. They relented, but made the girl and her siblings ride alone — and the driver sprayed the seats down with Lysol afterward. When more nits were spotted, the girl had to miss school and go to work with Mom.
Other parents, like Debbie Cornell, want to see schools go back to taking a hard line against head lice.
Cornell grew frustrated when her daughters each got head lice twice last school year. Their San Francisco private school lets kids with nits stay in class, a policy she blames for her daughters' infestation.
"I wanted to go to the school wearing a T-shirt that said 'Got Lice?' and have rice in my hair," she said. "I was like, `Come on, people, get with it!"'
The U.S. has anywhere from 6 million to 12 million cases of head lice each year, though that is only a guesstimate, said Dr. Barbara Frankowski, a Vermont pediatrician who has studied the subject. It is not clear whether there have been more infestations in recent years as a result of the new, more relaxed policies.
The switch came after a 2002 pediatrics academy study said students with nits shouldn't be kept out of class. The real problem, according to the medical experts, is the lice, not their eggs.
"Nits don't spread. They don't jump from one person to another," said Amy Garcia, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. "So to withhold a child from school due to nits really interrupts the educational process."
Once nits hatch, they generally take 7 to 10 days to become full-grown adults that can lay eggs and begin the cycle all over again.
About 60 percent of schools now allow children with nits to stay in class, Garcia said.
The pediatrics academy also says that kids who are found to have crawling head lice should be allowed to stay in school for the rest of the day but discouraged from close head contact with others. But not many school districts have gone that far.
Getting rid of head lice often requires a strong anti-lice shampoo to kill the crawling bugs, and a fine-tooth comb to pick the nits out of the hair. But the safety and effectiveness of some shampoos are questionable, and removing all the nits can take days.
The dangers of lice are small, Frankowski said. Lice have not been found to carry disease, though excessive scratching can lead to infections.
"It's a frustrating thing, but if you kind of put it in perspective with all the things that can happen sending your child off to school every day — heck, the school bus can go off the road," Frankowski said.
On the Net:
American Academy of Pediatrics: www.aap.org
National Association of School Nurses: www.nasn.org