And even if they were highly contagious: The point that both the AAP and the NASN want to make is that it’s far more important to keep kids in school than it is to send them home in the hope of stopping the spread of lice. Because, again, lice don’t hurt anyone. “We’ve heard stories of kids missing weeks of school because of lice, even being held back a grade,” said Frankowski. “It’s unfair to kids. It’s unfair to parents who work or who have other difficulties that don’t allow them to go through hours of delousing.”
If your school still sends kids home for lice or (God forbid) for nits, what can you do? Find out who makes the decisions on those policies. Sometimes it’s a school-by-school choice, which means you can collect all the relevant scientific information and talk to your principal. (Consider enlisting your school nurse, who almost certainly agrees with you, to help argue the case.)
Sometimes these policy decisions go through the school board. “I don’t want to disparage school boards,” said Frankowski. “But they don’t always make policy connected to what’s scientific—sometimes it’s just what’s easiest, or what they think parents want.” So you need to convince your school board that what parents want is a policy based on science, on expert recommendations, and on making life saner for busy parents.
Who would possibly disagree? Well, there are definitely parents who do. They can find support from Deborah Altschuler, the president and co-founder of the National Pediculosis Association, a nonprofit with a website touting the benefits of no-nit policies. In a phone interview, Altschuler told me that the school policy question was “a minefield” and said there is “a small club of people who follow the idea that there is some kind of scientific basis for allowing children with lice back in school.” She disagrees: “It’s a communicable disease that is easily transmitted among kids. We want to send kids to school lice- and nit-free, rather than lowering our standards to accommodate those who can’t do it for whatever reason.”
When I asked Altschuler about the AAP and NASN’s rejection of no-nit policies, she accused the organizations of being overly influenced by lice-chemical manufacturers. (For what it’s worth, Altschuler funds the anti-chemical National Pediculosis Association through sales of the LiceMeister® nit comb.)
Altschuler’s claim that lice transmit disease—that they are, themselves, a disease—is not supported by most scientists. In general, experts say, parents stress out way too much about head lice. “Head lice are a fact of life. It happens. It’s not a health issue, really,” said Marian Harmon, the school health bureau chief for Arlington County’s public health division who signed off on our schools’ new policy. “It’s not a sign of poor hygiene. It’s not an infection. It’s not a communicable disease. We treat it for the comfort of the child and the family. It shouldn’t be escalated to such a high priority.”
What I wondered after talking with all these experts is whether lice even need to be treated at all. Treatment’s expensive, it can expose your kids to pesticides, it takes forever, and all it does is rid your child of a basically harmless pest—and then only until the inevitable next time it shows up. I certainly didn’t get any of the experts I spoke with to come right out and say that you can pretty much ignore lice. They all note that parents want their children to be lice-free, regardless of whether the lice pose any actual threat. “It’s an emotional issue!” allowed the NASN’s Duff. “It’s a live bug crawling on the head of your child.” But I wonder if emotions aren’t getting in the way of common sense. After all, as Frankowski wryly noted, “No one’s ever died from a head louse infestation.”
That’s what I often found myself muttering in years past, as my wife and I spent work days and weeknights washing and combing and washing and combing the heads of perfectly healthy children. In an educational environment in which intervention is the default, a message from a school district announcing that its new policy is for everyone to just relax is extremely welcome. My kids need to be in school to learn, and to play with their friends, and to build their bright futures, and to stay out of my hair. I don’t need them sent home because of the harmless things crawling in theirs.