Importance of a Safe and Healthy School Environment: Pests, Pesticides and Children

Posted: October 5, 2011

Summer has ended and children are back in school. The first few weeks are always an exciting and busy time as students and parents get used to the new routine. But it is also the time of year when it is important to remember that safety is a fundamental part of a school’s environment. A safe and healthy school enables learning and teaching within an environment that fosters responsibility, respect and academic excellence.

A safe and healthy environment is pest-free and pesticides are never used where children can come in contact with them. Pests in schools can include roaches, mice and rats, head lice, bed bugs and others. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) helps to provide a safe environment by reducing pests and minimizing pesticide use. Children face unique hazards from pesticide exposure because of their small size and developing bodies. Implementing a good IPM program is one of the best ways to minimize or eliminate children’s exposure to pesticides in schools.

What is IPM?

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an approach to pest control that focuses on pest prevention by eliminating the root causes of pest problems. When infestations are present and require immediate intervention, the safest, most effective methods available for the situation are chosen.

IPM follows a stepwise approach:

  • Identification: The first step in solving any pest problem effectively and safely is the correct identification of the pest. It is critical to find out what kind of pests you have and where they are coming from. Since each pest has different habits, biology and life cycles, its positive identification will lead to more effective control.
  • Prevention and Exclusion: Prevention of the conditions that pests need is critical to successful control. In the case of rodents, ants and cockroaches, it can be accomplished by eliminating pests’ food, water and shelter. This means cleaning up food and beverages and their packaging or wrappers, fixing leaky plumbing, and eliminating clutter. Entry to the school by pests is prevented by caulking cracks and crevices, repairing screens, repairing drains and installing door sweeps.
  • Monitoring: New infestations can be controlled best if spotted early. With IPM, pest populations are regularly monitored using traps. Pest sightings are recorded to document where and when the problems occur.
  • Multiple tactics: IPM typically uses several non-chemical tactics to deal with the pest. Pesticides are used only as a last resort and only by a licensed and experienced professional.
  • Education: Everyone in the school needs to be educated about the IPM approach your school is taking. Everyone has a role to play in preventing and reporting pests.

Because IPM focuses on prevention, it provides more effective, long-term control than a reactive, spray-based approach to pest control. It also reduces the need to use pesticides.

Two pests that directly affect people in a school are head lice and bed bugs. Head lice are an annual occurrence in many schools, but bed bugs in schools is a rather new phenomenon.

Head Lice in School and at Home
What do you do if your child is sent home from school with head lice? It happens more often than you think. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), head lice affect over six million children (more than 10 percent of the elementary school population) every year. Your solution should include IPM strategies to safely and effectively eliminate these pesky infestations.
While head lice are irritating, they pose no known health risks. Head lice are tiny insects (the adult is about the size of a sesame seed) that thrive on the warmth, food and moisture a scalp provides. They spend their entire life on the human head. A single female may lay more than 100 eggs. They glue their eggs (called ‘nits’) to the base of hairs (one egg per hair), especially near the ears and back of the head. Eggs hatch in five to ten days, depending on the temperature. There are three immature (nymphal) stages taking from 6-12 days to complete.  The adult stage lives about 30 days. All stages must have blood meals if they are to survive and continue their development. Away from people, lice usually die within one to three days.

Head lice are easily transmitted in schools and daycare centers where children have close contact. Thus, children in these situations should be inspected regularly for active lice. Head lice are not caused by poor hygiene and do not “jump” from one person to another. They can be transferred between people who share items such as hats, hairbrushes and combs. They can also walk from one child’s head to another if their heads come into contact.

Family members of any child found with head lice should also be checked for head lice. Unless the problem is addressed at home, an infestation may reoccur. Some school districts have adopted a “no nit” policy and do not allow students back into the classroom with any nits remaining on the hair. However, recent research has shown that most nits, especially those more than one inch from the scalp, will not develop into lice, so ‘no-nit’ policies should be reviewed to make sure that children are not being kept out of school unnecessarily. Head lice are becoming more difficult to manage than in the past because of their increased resistance to prescription and nonprescription chemical treatments. In addition, because head lice spend their entire life on the human head, schools themselves should never be sprayed with an insecticide to control lice infestations on students.

To prevent the spread of head lice, parents should instruct their children to avoid wearing anyone else’s hat, avoid sharing combs or hairbrushes, and, if in close contact with a large group of children, tie back long hair. Reinfestation by lice can take place at any time, so children should continue to be inspected even after treatment.

For more information on head lice go to this Pennsylvania IPM Program link: and look for the publication Got Head Lice?

Bed Bugs – Coming to a School Near You! Are you ready?
Bed bugs have made a dramatic comeback in the U.S. in the recent years. As bed bugs infest more and more homes, they may find their way into schools by hitchhiking on children’s belongings.  Before this happens, a school district needs to be proactive by having in place a detailed integrated pest management plan of policies and procedures describing how to address a bed bug issue. Then if an issue does arise, the school will be prepared to take the appropriate actions to prevent infestation and stop them from spreading in the school setting.

Bed bugs are small, reddish-brown, flat, elliptically shaped insects that feed on the blood of people while they sleep. Adults range in size from 1/8 to ¼ inch and resemble a flattened apple seed. Although the bite does not hurt at the time, it may develop into an itchy welt similar to a mosquito bite. Bed bugs do not transmit disease, but they can cause significant itchiness, anxiety, and sleeplessness. Usually bed bugs will hide during the day and only come out to feed during the night. Unlike head lice, they do not live on a person. However, they can hitchhike from one place to another in backpacks, clothing, luggage, books and other items. It is critical to get a positive identification first because many small arthropods and their bites are easily mistaken for bed bugs. Keep in mind that it has been a long time since bed bugs have been a problem in the US, and even some pest control operators have misidentified bed bugs. 

Established bed bug infestations in schools are uncommon. More commonly, a few bed bugs will hitchhike to school from an infested home by hiding in a student’s clothing or backpack. Bed bugs that hitch a ride into the school in one student’s backpack could be carried home by another student, thus making the school a potential hub for bed bug spread. This is not a minor concern because bed bugs are very expensive and difficult to eradicate.

Schools should work with the families of any student living in an infested home to develop strategies for preventing the further spread of bed bugs:

  • Determine if the infested home is being professionally treated.  Home remedies and do-it-yourself treatments are usually insufficient or ineffective, and could cause negative health effects or produce potential hazards in the home.
  • If a family lacks the financial resources to hire a pest management professional, they can reference the online resources found at and
  • In an infested home, the child’s freshly laundered clothing should be sealed in plastic bags until they are put on in the morning. This prevents bed bugs from hiding in the clothing and being carried to school. Other items, such as backpacks and lunchboxes, can be inspected daily and store in sealed containers if possible.
  • Nothing should be stored on, in or under the child’s bed at home.
  • At school, the student could be provided with plastic bags or bins in which to store his or her belongings in order to prevent any bed bugs from spreading to other students’ belongings. Limit the number of items going back and forth from home to school until infestation is treated. Arrange for non-essential items to be stored at the school if possible.

For more information on bed bugs go to this Pennsylvania IPM Program link: and look for the publication Got Bed Bugs?

The Pennsylvania IPM program is a collaboration between the Pennsylvania State University and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture aimed at promoting integrated pest management in both agricultural and urban situations. If you need more information on IPM practices you can contact the program at (814) 865-2839. In Philadelphia at (215) 435-9685, E-mail:, or our Web site at