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SPECIAL REPORT: Stopping the cycle of head lice

SUN PRAIRIE (WKOW) — Many parents worry that their children will get head lice.  According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, that happens for six to 12 million children a year.

Stephanie Speers kids are part of that statistic.

“I went to braid [my daughter’s] hair, and my stomach just dropped,” Speers said.  She saw lice and their eggs, known as nits.  “I started checking [my sons’] hair, and I was like, okay so it’s apparently a family affair.”

Speers’ daughter had lice once before when she was younger.  She said over-the-counter treatments took weeks to get rid of the bugs and eggs.  Patty Ziegler had a similar experience with her daughter.  That’s when she opened The Bright Side, an urgent care center for lice removal, in Sun Prairie.

“[Lice] are very contagious and will spread quickly,” said Ziegler.

More and more now, professional grade treatments like Ziegler’s are needed to get rid of lice.

“Most lice are super lice,” explained Karen Sokoloff, owner of the nationwide company LiceDoctors.  “They are resistant to the chemicals.”

Sokoloff added, many over-the-counter treatments don’t get the nits, and home remedies are ineffective.  “What will happen is they’ll comb out what’s visible, and they’ll leave in the tiny [nits].  They’ll just miss it.”

Many school districts have changed their policies within the last five years after recommendations from the AAP and CDC.  The Madison Metropolitan School District is one of those.

“We’re really trying to make more of a caring policy and a less exclusionary policy,” said Sally Zirbel-Donisch, the health services coordinator at MMSD.

Zirbel-Donisch said students at MMSD are no longer routinely mass screened for lice because research showed that wasn’t stopping the spread.  Also, students do not have to go home immediately if head lice are found.  At their parents’ digression they can stay through the rest of the school day because typically children will have had lice for weeks prior to the discovery.  They are sent home with instructions on how to remove lice and checked the next day.

However, a note is not sent home to all parents when a child has lice in the class, grade or school.  “A lot of times those children are stigmatized and isolated, and children in the class know who those students are, and so we really want to protect a child’s privacy,” said Zirbel-Donisch.

Speers’ kids go to school in Janesville.  The district reports a nit reduction policy, meaning as long as no live bugs are found on a student, they can stay in class even if they have nits.  The full Janesville district policy is available at the end of this article.

Speers said, she would appreciate a note going home to parents if someone else in her children’s grade had lice.  “I think it’s really frustrating. I don’t view contracting lice as anything different than the flu bug or a cold or something like that,” she said.  “I think that they should let parents know, so that they can be on the lookout, catch it early, not let the other kids just pass it… It spreads as fast as a virus.”

While the stigma associated with lice prevents some districts from doing this, many health professionals say the stigma is not true.

“I hate the stigma. It’s so backwards,” said Ziegler.  “It’s those kids with the clean hair and the most friends [who get lice].”

Health professionals say the reason for this is because lice are usually spread in a social hair-to-hair contact situation, and the bugs typically only can attach to clean hair.

“People think that head lice is a sign of poor hygiene, but it’s the opposite,” said Sokoloff.

No matter your school or district policies, health professionals suggest stopping the spread of lice by taking matters into your own hands and preventing future cases.

“That openness, that willingness to say, hey we had a case of lice in our family. Texting, emailing, calling friends and saying, maybe take a look at your child and make sure,” said Ziegler.

“The only way to stop the cycle is for everybody who hangs out together checked and treated,” Sokoloff said.

That’s something Speers said she was quick to take care of, notifying her son’s daycare and parents of her other children’s friends.  After she and her three kids were treated at The Bright Side, they went home lice free.


Janesville School District Head Lice Policy

Live lice – These are live lice that have hatched from the eggs and can be seen in a person’s
hair. They are capable of laying eggs and continuing the life cycle of lice.

Nits – These are the eggs that are found on hair shafts, can be hatched or unhatched. They are
cemented on the hair shaft and are hard to remove. Nits close to the scalp have not hatched. Nits
further away from the scalp (more than 1 inch) have already hatched.

Classroom – This is the specific room that a student with live lice or untreated nits were identified.

Grade level – This is the grade level (i.e. all third grade classrooms) where cases of live lice or
untreated nits were identified.

Unit – This is the two grade levels that share time together at recess/lunch (i.e. 4th and 5th grade, or 2nd
and 3rd grade).

  1. At the beginning of each school year, schools will include the introductory letter on head lice in the
    informational packet to parents. This introductory letter informs parents about the district actions
    on head lice and actions parents can take to help manage head lice in the school.
  2.  Keep Alert! Be suspicious of students who repeatedly scratch their heads.
  3. If a student is found to have live head lice, send the student home to be treated along with the letter.
  4. If the student is found to have nits only, contact the parent/guardian. Do not send the student home.
    Send the letter home with the student.
  5. All other household members to the identified case, who attend the School District of Janesville,
    should be checked. Household members should be sent home for treatment if live lice are found. If
    no live lice are found, the student may stay in school.
  6. Up to three students that are in the same school as the case person, who may be considered a
    suspect or close contact, should be checked for head lice. Students to consider include:

    • Frequent playmates.
    • Students who recently shared combs, brushes, hats, coats, gym towels and/or equipment,
      helmets, dress up clothing, etc.
    • Students who share the same locker or cubbies. Students who are frequent “huggers”.
  7. At the elementary and secondary school level:
    • If no other close contacts are found to have live head lice, the follow up screening can stop.
    • If 2 or more close contact students are found to have live lice or nits, proceed to check the
      students in the classroom(s) of the students found to have head lice.
    • If five or more students in the classroom(s) are found to have live head lice or nits,
      immediately contact the school nurse for further direction.
  8. Students sent home for treatment can return to school after completing treatment and changing into
    clean clothes.
  9. Upon returning to school, students will be checked for live lice. If no live lice are found, the
    student can return to class. If live lice are found, the student will be sent home with the proper
  10. Students with nits only and no live lice will be able to return to class. The school district supports a
    reduced nit plan. Students with recurrent cases of head lice shall be encouraged to have the nits
  11. The following actions are recommended to prevent the spread of head lice at school:
    • Store each student’s hats, coats, jackets in separate lockers or cubbies.
    • Do not have dress-up clothes at school that different students can play with and wear without
      being laundered between students.
    • Teach students not to share clothing, towels, hats, scarves, helmets, combs, hair clips, head
      bands, or other personal grooming articles.
    • Store smocks, gym clothes, etc. in separate lockers or cubbies.
    • For longer hair, braid your child’s hair or have it pulled back in a ponytail.
  12.  There may be exceptions to parts of this guideline as allowed by the Director of Pupil Services.
Author Profile Photo

Caroline Bach

Anchor, 27 News at 11

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