Head lice and Canadian schools

With 2.4 million cases per year in Canada, according to Lice Squad, head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis) are the second most communicable affliction among school-aged children after the common cold.

Lice infestations are attributed to head to head contact – sleepovers, close play, sharing hair combs and hats, even selfie culture has been blamed (head lice do not jump, this is a myth). According to the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP) says that most cases of head lice are acquired outside of school.

In Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It mother Kate Reddy is comforted by a friend after she finds out her children have lice. Reddy’s friend soothes her in saying that lice is a middle-class issue now. It may be a novel but the idea that lice is connected to the working-class and poor is deeply rooted in classist ideas that only the poor are unhygienic enough to contract these pests. “They do not discriminate – anybody can get head lice,” reads some literature published by lice removal service Lice Squad. In an article by The Council on School Health and Committee on Infectious Diseases, authors Cynthia D. Devore and Gordon E. Schutze write that lice are not a health hazard, not are they a sign of poor hygiene. Lice are also not a result of an unclean home. “Lice are not living in your environment,” reads Lice Squad materials, citing that they can not survive off the head for more than 48 hours. “A child/youth contracting lice is not necessarily an indicator of neglect.  Many children in our community get lice and I believe the vast majority of those children are not neglected,” says Patsy Hamilton of Toronto Children’s Aid Society.

When asked about the Toronto District School Board’s (TDSB) policy on lice, TDSB Manager of Corporate and Social Media Relations Ryan Bird refers to the board’s head lice procedure document: if nits or lice are found on a child, schools are to send these children home with a letter and they may not return to school until treated, and when they do return there must be a signed letter of proof that they have been treated, “If a returning child is not free of lice or nits, the child shall not be readmitted to class. The parent is contacted by the school and arrangements made for the child to return home as soon as possible.” Bird says that staff is generally aware of lice through the TDSB procedure, but there is no additional training. The procedure has not been reviewed since May 2012.

“There is no sound medical rationale for excluding a child with nits or live lice from school or child care,” reads a 2016 Canadian Paediatric Society report, recommending against sending children home from school when nits are found. Among its many references, the article cites an article by RJ Pollack’s ‘Overdiagnosis and consequent mismanagement of head louse infestations in North America’, which says that head lice is often misdiagnosed. Lice Squad explains that at times folks may confuse white hair debris for lice eggs, which are never actually white but a light brown, tear drop shape.

Facts vs. Myths

  • Head lice are not a result of bad hygiene.
  • Head lice do not jump.
  • Head lice do not survive off the scalp.
  • Head lice does not live on pets.

The Vancouver School Board follows guidelines from Vancouver Coastal Health, which suggest schools develop a resource library or school website section with information on head lice management, taking an educational approach. The Halifax Regional School Board revises their head lice policy every five years. Their most recent policy, revised in 2015, states the importance of a student’s dignity and recognizes how head lice, though common, may make a family feel embarrassed, but encourages parents to talk about it. In Quebec, no action is taken by the school until 10% of a group of children have it. According to an article in the Montreal Gazette, “The rules state that sending a letter when only one child is affected merely serves to ‘dramatically increase the level of anxiety and stigmatization’ and ‘generates inappropriate prophylactic treatments.’” Edmonton schools allow children to stay in school while they are getting treatment, and offer resources for families.

Cover photo from ‘Collectible Wildlife Gifts

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