Head lice: A quick resource guide

A look at how, and why, districts implement "lice allowed" policies
By: | December 19, 2018
Woman inspecting child's head looking for head lice. Using hands, magnifying glass and comb.

School head lice policies cause controversy throughout the country as some districts abandon “no nit” rules that require sending home children who have nits (lice eggs) or live lice in their hair.

National health organizations note that missing school due to lice is harmful to children academically, socially and emotionally—and that lice do not pose a public health threat.

“Lice allowed” policies in schools are based on recommendations by these national health organizations:

Despite the fact that those recommendations have been in place for more than a decade, policies allowing children with lice to stay in school remain in the minority—in large part due to a combination of ignorance and fear.

Experts say that only about 10 percent of head lice cases are the result of transmission at school. The majority of infections can be traced to sleep-overs, childcare and family settings. And head lice aren’t all that contagious and they don’t transmit illness, according to Dr. Barbara Frankowski, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health.

Sending a child home as soon as lice or nits are discovered can cause stigmatization, Frankowski says. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that letters notifying families that a case of lice has been discovered may violate privacy laws, cause unnecessary alarm and unintentionally reinforce myths about lice.

Read more: Schools give leeway on lice

Nevada’s Washoe County School District moved to a more lenient policy in 2012; since then, fewer children have missed school due to lice. Here are details of the district’s “lice allowed” policy:

  • Staff who notice symptoms of head lice in a student must send the child to the health office. Only the nurse and a clinical aide can confirm lice or nits.
  • If head lice are present, the nurse notifies the principal and the child’s parents. The parents can pick up the child or the child can stay in class stay until school ends.
  • The nurse provides information about lice treatment to the parents, and in most cases, parents begin treatment that same day.
  • When the child returns to school—which may be the next day—the nurse or aide rechecks for lice. If any are noted and there is no evidence that treatment has been initiated, the case is considered chronic.
  • The student is allowed to stay in school while health staff reach out to the family to see what additional support might be necessary—including helping parents obtain treatment supplies if there are financial barriers.

Here are other lice-awareness facts:

  • Head lice are parasites that feed on human blood and live close to the scalp.
  • Approximately 6 million to 12 million cases occur annually among American children ages 3 to 11.
  • At any given time, approximately 1 percent to 5 percent of a school’s population has lice.
  • A child has likely been infected for approximately three weeks by the time lice are discovered.
  • Lice are most common among preschool and early elementary-age children.
  • Only about 10 percent of all head lice cases are the result of transmission at school.