Stories about education that reach the public eye often focus on clearly academic matters such as curriculum or discipline. But recent insight into the academic impact of head lice may lead the Medford School District to change its policy on the small, parasitic insects that conjure up images of notes sent home, mayonnaise treatments or even shaved heads.
"I think the recommendation we're getting from the agencies that actually know what's up about this is that our current policy is outdated," Tania Tong, special education and student services director, told Medford School Board members at a meeting Wednesday morning. The board is considering amending its lice policy and procedures so that students found to have lice would not be immediately sent home during the school day.
The Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority in 2017 established new guidance for school responses to live head lice discoveries, or pediculosis, that discourages this immediate-exclusion approach. If the target for head lice-related policies hangs in the balance of preventing lice from spreading while minimizing class time missed by students who get them, the latest scientific consensus is that students may be missing more class than necessary.
A body of research compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta in the last two decades has indicated that lice are less of a contagion concern at schools than has historically been believed. School districts handle them in a host of different ways: Some will not allow students who still have nits (unhatched eggs) after initial treatment to return to school; Medford excludes students immediately, but allows students to return after treatment even with nits (in line with CDC recommendations). Others, including Ashland, Brookings and Woodburn, have changed their policies to allow students to return to class and leave at the end of the day, still requiring eradication of live lice before a return.
Other rationales for the change center on the social and financial considerations of identifying students with lice and sending them home. Tong mentioned the stigmas associated with having lice. Students are likely to miss more days of school if their families can't easily afford lice treatment shampoo, disproportionately impacting those from lower-income households.
The National Association of School Nurses' position statement also supports policy that allows students to stay through the end of the day.
"The burden of unnecessary absenteeism to the students, families and communities far outweighs the perceived risks associated with head lice," it reads.
The School Board's decision is pending, but the district plans even so to try to clear up common misconceptions about lice. Many center on misidentifying where students are at the most risk for exposure or re-exposure. "Demystifying Pediculosis," an essay cited by the NASN in its position statement, addresses several beliefs disproved by research: that lice can fly or remain alive for long apart from the human scalp, or that lice are a result of poor hygiene.
There's evidence that misconceptions remain: board member Jeff Kinsella, whose teaching career spans more than two decades, said he has had students return to class a day after lice was discovered on another student's head — with their own heads completely shaved.
Superintendent Brian Shumate said, however, that he thinks mind-sets may change with new information.
"How many other things have we adjusted our thinking about in the last 30 to 40 years?" he said.
The board is set to discuss, but not vote on, the policy at it Feb. 26 meeting.
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.