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No-nit school rules center of national debate

Getting checked for head lice was one of the ritual constants for elementary school students in western Nevada County.

Students formed lines in front of the school’s nurse, who checked heads one by one, giving each passing student his or her black, plastic examination comb in return.

The pesky pediculosis parasite has been the bane of area primary schools – and of parents with children at those schools – for years.



Recently, western Nevada County districts have started to change their lice policies, which are the subject of some debate in childhood health circles locally and nationally.

In the past, no-nit policies were strictly enforced. When school nurses found students with lice in their hair, they were sent home to treat it. When they returned, nurses checked that both the lice and their eggs, called nits, were gone.




But nurses at most area public schools now subscribe to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ newest guidelines, which recommend allowing students to return to school after their hair has been treated – even if they have nits.

The idea is nits in treated hair will die and won’t present a danger of spreading, said Sharyn Turner, the nurse for Nevada County’s Superintendent of Schools Office. The office regularly meets with school nurses around the county and helps to set policy at the district level.

“It’s the best way to handle it,” Turner said. “So many kids have been excluded from school by having dead lice in their hair. They miss academic time, and the psychological harm is very bad.”

The Grass Valley School District is adopting a policy allowing nits this spring, and it’s under consideration in Nevada City’s elementary schools, too.

Lice flare up at Nevada County schools in spring and fall among young elementary students, who are often in close contact with one another, Turner said.

Policies allowing nits after treatment, as opposed to no-nit policies, can encourage re-infestation, said Deborah Altschuler, who runs the nonprofit National Pediculosis Association.

Her organization, founded in Massachusetts in 1983, advocates keeping students out of school until the lice are eradicated, nits and all.

“Lice haven’t changed. Children aren’t less vulnerable to them,” Altschuler said. “If kids are going into school with nits in their hair, the probability of a re-infestation goes up.”

And for the parents of those children, an infestation can mean taking a day or two off work to treat their children and launder everything in the house with which they have been in contact, including sheets, pillows, blankets, caps and carpeting.

At school, nurses who aren’t trained may miss nits, which could hatch while the affected child is in class and begin a new infestation, Altschuler said.

Policies that allow children to return with nits are measures aimed at increasing enrollment at school districts desperate for every per-student dollar passed out from states, Altschuler said.

Western Nevada County schools indeed face budget crises – at least $5.6 million in shortfalls next year – due to California’s budget crisis and declining enrollment. Several have programs to encourage attendance, with missed days costing local districts millions of dollars.

But the change to the no-nit policy is not related to finances in his district, Grass Valley Superintendent Jon Byerrum said. Grass Valley schools follow the direction of the county Office of Education on health matters.

And nurses in Nevada County do have adequate training to back up school policy and detect nits, Turner added.

“I could argue both sides. It’s so important to have trained personnel to look at this,” Turner said. “It’s best to do it on a case-by-case basis.”

To contact Staff Writer Kyle Magin, e-mail kmagin@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4239.


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