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C.J. Schoen School Administration Building in Covington.

St. Tammany Parish Public School officials say the number of confirmed head lice cases has changed very little since the system scratched its longstanding policy to stymie the spread of the pesky bugs three years ago.

But that didn’t stop the School Board from adopting a new policy Feb. 8 that, once again, will require schools to report cases of head lice to parents of students in pre-K through sixth grade.

The School Board voted 9-1-1 for a new policy that includes slight revisions to the one that ended prior to the 2021-22 school year. Schools will be required to inform parents that live bugs have been detected in a child’s hair the moment they are noticed. Parents will be asked to pick up the affected child from school immediately and the student must be treated for the condition before being allowed to return.

Unlike previous policy, when a letter was sent to all parents of kids in the same class as a child with lice, a robocall now will inform parents that their child may have been exposed.

The Centers for Disease Control, the state Department of Health, and the American Academy of Pediatrics were among the groups that changed stances on lice prevention in the mid-2010s. They noted that potential lice breakouts can be contained when parents routinely inspect children’s heads and take proper steps to kill or remove the bugs when detected. Sending a student home the moment lice were found could stigmatize the child, they noted, which could potentially be much more damaging than a case of head lice, which medically speaking, is a nuisance and not a communicable disease.

In St. Tammany schools, however, the policy of sending children home immediately after detection remained until 2021. That’s about the same time the school system hired a full-time coordinator of school nurses, primarily to establish policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Neeley Estrade, a registered nurse who is health and safety coordinator for St. Tammany public schools, questioned why the district continued the old lice practice, rather than falling in line with updated national policies. School system administrators followed her advice and rescinded the decades-old policy before the start of the 2021-22 school year.

According to Meredith Mendez, the school system’s Director of Communications, there were 163 cases of head lice reported in parish public schools in the 2022-23 session. A total of 161 had been reported as of Feb. 8 in the 2023-24 term.

While a slight uptick in lice cases seems inevitable by the end of the school year, Estrade and others noted that it’s far from an outbreak, with less than one-half of 1% of the district’s 37,000 students having head lice at some point this school year. The school system’s stance was that its policy the last three years, or lack thereof, was sufficient, given it was in line with the opinion of national medical authorities.

More than a dozen parents and teachers spoke at a School Board committee meeting on Feb. 1, however, sharing stories of students with particularly bad cases. One teacher from Covington’s Lyon Elementary said a student was scratching so much that he couldn’t concentrate or sit still in her class. Another said she saw sores on some children’s heads and lice crawling on the forehead of another.

Several School Board members said they’d heard similar stories from educators and constituents across the parish. They spoke of the cost of the treatments to kill lice and how it can add up if treating everyone in a household. Several teachers indicated they had contracted lice from students, as well.

Board member Amanda Reed Martin introduced the resolution in committee to re-establish some sort of lice policy. One suggestion was to allow the affected student to remain in school until the end of the day and then send word to parents of the problem, while another recommended immediate action. The committee discussed the issue for two hours before settling on the latter proposal and sending it to the full board for Thursday’s vote.

Brandon Harrell voted against the measure and Dennis Cousin abstained. Members Matthew Greene, Isabelle Moore, Gia Baker and Deborah McCollum were absent.

The adopted policy is effective immediately. Mendez did not have data on how many other Louisiana parishes had updated head lice policies. Martin did say at the Feb. 1 committee meeting she'd borrowed her suggested protocols from other parishes, indicating there are measures to mitigate head lice in other Louisiana school districts.

In other action on Feb. 8, the School Board approved the hiring of a Child Welfare and Attendance Investigator, whose job will entail ferreting out students attending St. Tammany Parish schools but who do not live in the parish. Administrators brought the proposal to the board previously, but it failed to pass. Concern among school officials about the issue has grown, however, and the measure passed unanimously on Thursday, with only Michelle Ruffino Gallaher abstaining.

Also passing was a resolution to hold more School Board meetings in Slidell. The Board meets at least 24 times annually, with 21 of those meetings at the central office in Covington. Now, at least six of the 24 scheduled annual meetings will take place at the Brooks Curriculum Center Building in Slidell.

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