Should Kids With Lice Stay in School?

Head lice may be annoying, but they aren't a medical issue. . (Photo: STUDIO GRAND QUEST/Shutterstock)

No parent wants to get that call from the school nurse telling them their child is sick. Equally bad is the call telling them that their child is perfectly healthy but needs to go home because they have lice. That's why some parents are applauding new school policies that allow kids with lice eggs (nits) — or even live lice — to remain in the classroom.

If you're fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with head lice, here's a primer. Lice are parasitic insects that can be found crawling on people's heads. Many people associate head lice with poor hygiene but that's not the case. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), head lice infestations are most common among preschool and elementary school children and their household members and caretakers.

It's not pleasant to think about creatures crawling around on your child's (or your own) head, but the CDC says head lice are not known to transmit disease. So, while they're a nuisance, they aren't a medical issue. Yet many school districts have so-called "no nit" policies stating that children found to have lice may not return to the classroom until all signs of lice, including the nits, are gone.

This is the tricky part, because while lice may be harmless, they are also extremely difficult to get rid of. The process involves pesticide-laden shampoo and hours of meticulous nit-picking to ensure that all traces of the infestation are removed. It's time-consuming and tedious, particularly for working parents who may not have several hours each night to spend picking nits.

Head lice
Gross. (Photo: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)

Experts weigh in

That's the reason the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Association of School Nurses have both released official policy statements arguing that a healthy child should not be restricted from attending school because of head lice or nits. From the AAP site:

"Pediatricians are encouraged to educate schools and communities that no-nit policies are unjust and should be abandoned. Children can finish the school day, be treated, and return to school."

That's right, according to the AAP, even kids with live head lice don't need to go home right away for treatment. They argue that children found to have head lice have likely had it for weeks, so a few more hours in the classroom won't put anyone at any additional risk.

As you might imagine, not all parents want kids with head lice to stay in the classroom. Parents of children at one elementary school in Michigan are pushing for more regulation and greater transparency about notifying other parents when even one child in a classroom is found to have lice.

Another advocate of the no nit policy is the National Pediculosis Association, a nonprofit that focuses on head lice education (and is supported in part by the sales of a comb used to remove lice). In their online argument supporting strict regulation when it comes to lice, the group states a rather indisputable fact:

"Few who oppose the No Nit Policies would accept infestations for themselves or for their own children."

You have to admit that's a pretty good point.