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Toronto school board’s plan to review head lice policy sparks debate Add to ...

One of the country’s largest school boards is considering changing the rule that keeps kids with head lice at home, inflaming the debate over whether exclusion is the right way to deal with the maligned critters.

Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the Toronto District School Board, said Wednesday that the policy is under review because the public health authority has changed its position on excluding students that have lice or their eggs, called nits.

That happened after the Canadian Pediatric Society reaffirmed its view that there is no “sound medical rationale” for keeping kids with lice out of school.

“I think that many people believe that as long as it’s being treated, that shouldn’t be a barrier to come to school for days at a time,” Bird said. “I don’t anticipate it taking very long to start redrafting our own procedures.”

The Toronto board’s shift is just the latest development in a long and heated public discussion over how to handle kids with lice, with some parents saying affected children should be kept away from school until the bugs are gone.

Others say the risk of transmission is low and there is greater harm in depriving kids of an education while making them feel ashamed about having lice, which are most often spread by head-to-head contact.

Boards across the country have different policies on the issue. Some, like Vancouver, follow local health officials’ guidelines naming lice a nuisance and have no restrictions while others, like Toronto for now, insist students be lice-free before they return to class.

Boards in Calgary and Halifax don’t exclude students with lice, but encourage parents to treat their kids before sending them back to the classroom. A spokesman for the English Montreal School Board said via email that the board has no policy, and schools have their own “systems” for handling the issue.

“Sadly, it is something we can never say good-bye to,” wrote Michael Cohen in an email.

The small, wingless insects live and feed on scalps by simultaneously sucking blood and injecting saliva. Females can produce five or six eggs a day for 30 days, with each in a shell that sticks to the hair shaft.

Dawn Mucci, a mother of three and CEO of the lice removal company Lice Squad, has dealt with infestations on her own kids and says students with lice should be kept out of school to prevent the spread of the bloodsucking bugs.

“Lice is frustrating, it’s annoying, it’s a stress, it takes time and energy to have to deal with it,” she said from her home in Innisfil, Ont.

“So when you’re sending your kid back to a school that’s doing nothing about it and your kid continuously gets it, it’s a real bone of contention.”

Some parents in Belleville, Ont., grew so frustrated that they started a Facebook group to express their opposition to a change by the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board to allow kids with lice to come to class.

“This is ridiculous! Send them to school so they can give it to all the other students!” one woman wrote on the page, which featured the board’s notice and its description of lice as a “nuisance, not a barrier to learning.”

“I am outraged!!! I have been through this x 5 and wasted an entire summer picking nits and had to cut all my girls hair off short...nuisance my ass!” wrote another.

It’s those kinds of responses that Richard Pollack, a public health entomologist who specializes in lice, says fuel misconceptions about the six-legged, caramel-coloured insects.

Pollack says lice are often misdiagnosed, don’t spread other diseases like Ebola or meningitis and are far more difficult to transmit than people think.

“Just about everything people think they know about head lice is wrong – it’s folklore,” he said from Cambridge, Mass.

“Head lice do not in nature transmit anything except hysteria, so it’s much ado about nothing.”

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