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Change in Merced City School District's head lice policy upsets some parents

A mother of a Chenoweth Elementary School student, whose child has allegedly contracted lice five times since December, recently expressed concern over the Merced City School District's one-year old policy on head lice in an unpublished letter to the editor.

The letter, written on behalf of 10 other concerned parents, stated that there has been an increase in lice outbreaks because of this policy.

The school district's head nurse, Leslie Schleth, said this was not the case.

The Merced County Office of Education adopted a no-live-lice policy in February 2008 and Merced City School District later followed suit.

The policy allows students to remain in school if they have "nits," or lice eggs, in their hair. But students with live bugs in their hair are sent home, Schleth said.

There is no evidence that a no-nit policy prevents or shortens outbreaks, said the California Department of Public Health, and it recommended schools do away with no-nit policies.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommended that school districts disband no-nit policies.

Greg Spicer, Merced City School District assistant superintendent, said the policy has been a work in progress for several years because attendance had become a major issue.

Students who had live lice were only admitted back to school if their hair was completely cleared of nits, Spicer said, so students could be out for weeks.

"Children would miss weeks of school," Schleth said. "I was so thrilled and relieved when this change happened."

The author of the letter to the editor, who asked to remain anonymous to protect the identity of her child, said common sense tells us that if there are nits then there must be live lice.

This isn't true.

Lice treatments usually kill live bugs; however, actual eggs need to be picked out of a person's hair with a comb, Schleth said.

Nits are usually the size of a sesame seed and are embedded on the shaft of a person's hair. The nit can be clear or brown if there is an actual bug inside, Schleth said.

The eggs can't be transmitted from person to person, so there is less of a worry for an outbreak, she said.

Schleth said that the number of students getting lice this year is the same as it has been in previous years.

The number of reported lice cases at Chenoweth Elementary School is normal for this time of year, said Paula Heupel, principal at Chenoweth Elementary School.

Merced City School District recommends schools check for lice three times a year.

If an incidence of lice occurs in a classroom, classes get checked more frequently, Heupel said.

Currently, there is no clear definition of a lice outbreak, according to Schleth, but if more than two people in every class in a school had lice, parents would be notified and every student would most likely be checked for bugs. That type of outbreak has never happened in the Merced City School District.

Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209)385-2907 or joppenheim@mercedsun-star.com.

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