Wednesday May 30, 2012

PITTSFIELD - They're icky and annoying to nix, but because head lice don't pose a health danger, some schools in the Berkshires over the past several years have followed national health organizations' suggestion to abandon mandates that ask parents to pull children with lice from the classroom.

Since 2010, groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have recommended that schools no longer send home those harboring the nuisance and abandon no-nit policies for a child's return. Even though schools that have taken up these practices haven't had outbreaks, the shift in practice doesn't go over well with all moms and dads, and there are still districts in the county that have stuck with the old rule, noting that it puts staff and parents at ease.

At Lee Elementary School, the student handbook says there is no need to send a child with lice home from school because there is only a small chance of spread, citing the AAP's recommendations as well as those from the state Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control.

Diane Naventi, Lee Elementary's school nurse, said she saw no difference in the spread of lice between sending a child home and allowing them to stay in class before going home for treatment - in part because by the time lice are discovered, a child has often been walking around with them for days or weeks.

" We're responding to the fact that parents have a hard time leaving work early, and it really isn't an urgent situation," Naventi said. " The problem is the stigma attached to it. We're trying to destigmatize it."

For the first time this year, the school also stopped sending notifications home to parents informing them when a child's classmate has lice because, Naventi said, the notes could compromise children's confidentiality and didn't do much for prevention.

For some parents, however, the previous guidelines brought a modicum of comfort to a meddlesome reality of childhood.

In the Central Berkshire Regional School District, children who are found to have lice are sent home for treatment, then re- checked the next day, as are any siblings.

"It makes the staff and the parents much more comfortable," said Barbara Westwood, nursing supervisor for the district that comprises Becket, Cummington, Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru, Washington andWindsor. "We're in a public health setting and we're in a community setting."

Last week, a Pittsfield parent raised the issue with the city public schools after she learned that the district's practice is now to allow children with live lice to remain at school if their parents aren't available to pick them up. After locating head lice on her child, the mother was also upset that she had not received a note from the school to inform her that there had recently been other children with lice there.

The alteration to the handling of children with lice in Pittsfield schools is based on the national recommendations, according to Joan Roy, the district's nurse leader.

" The only thing that's changed is we don't demand the child leave at that moment," Roy said. "We prefer that kids get picked up, but it's not something that should interrupt the educational process. ... [Lice are] just one of the things that sometimes happens. It's very treatable and it's nothing to be in a panic about."

Several school nurses also challenged the idea that schools are where lice transmission primarily takes place, noting that camps, sleepovers, helmets and even movie theater seats can be sites of louse crossover.

At Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School in Great Barrington, the policy is to send children with lice home and send notes to inform classmates' parents of the presence of lice in the classroom. School nurse Rebecca Donovan said that even though she does not often see transmission of lice from one child to another in a classroom, the practice cools parents' nerves.

"Parents are really uncomfortable with kids being left here, so we do try to take their thoughts into account," she said.

To reach Amanda Korman: akorman@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6243.

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