Student Well-Being

Experts Warn Schools to Be Ready for Bedbug Sightings

By Nirvi Shah — February 24, 2011 4 min read
A common bedbug is engorged with blood after feeding. While bedbugs rarely infest schools, they often hitchhike in on students' clothing or backpacks.

If nobody’s sleeping, tightly or otherwise, could the bedbugs be biting?

Maybe.

The mere possibility of a bedbug problem—and the perception of one by the community—has been enough to prod schools across the country to be proactive. And as the insects continue to spread, and remain resistant to most pesticides, experts say more schools will need the kind of action plans already in place in districts in Michigan, New York, Ohio, and other states.

“Bedbug sightings in schools would be expected to reflect infestations in surrounding communities,” said Dale Kemery, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Last month in Washington, the EPA hosted its second national bedbug summit, which included a presentation about schools for the first time.

Hitchhiking Via Backpack

Bedbugs have been found in all 50 states, according to the National Pest Management Association of Fairfax, Va.

“Schools should be aware of the problem and have procedures in place to ensure that decisions are made in a thoughtful and responsible manner,” Mr. Kemery said.

Experts say the tiny insects have hitchhiked into schools everywhere on the clothing or backpacks of students and staff members. No national statistics on the extent of infestations in schools are available, but they are thought to be uncommon—mostly because schools have few soft pieces of furniture and no one sleeping there at night, when the critters typically feed. The bigger threat bedbugs pose is to classmates and co-workers who could carry them home, leading to an infestation where they sleep.

New York City, which has been in the bedbug spotlight for several years, established a detailed set of steps in 2007 for schools to take whenever the insects are found on campus. The district has gone from hearing about 44 sightings each month in 2009 to more than 450 sightings per month on average during November, December, and January, spokeswoman Marge T. Feinberg said. Part of the uptick may be due to increased vigilance.

“People send us specimens—they send us hundreds and hundreds of specimens,” Ms. Feinberg said, including some that are much larger than apple-seed-sized bedbugs. If the creatures are bedbugs, parents are notified and sent a fact sheet on the insects, a pest-control company is called, and if necessary, the school is treated.

Creatures of the Night

But in most cases, that isn’t necessary, said Thomas A. Green, the president of the nonprofit Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America, in Madison, Wis.

“If there’s nobody there at night, they’re not going to survive and thrive,” said Mr. Green, who talked about bedbugs at school at the national summit.

Nocturnal creatures, bedbugs make meals out of human blood while people sleep, often leaving rows of bites. They aren’t known to transmit diseases, but they are a nuisance because they are so tough to eradicate.

Treatments can be expensive. Some families simply can’t afford it, especially in the current economic climate, said Dawn H. Gouge, an associate professor of urban entomology for the Arizona Cooperative Extension at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.

In the Cincinnati public schools, which have been dealing with occasional bedbug sightings for at least three years, keeping children whose homes are infested out of school isn’t an option. Nor is drawing attention to the student with frequent hitchhikers.

“We will have everybody put their backpacks and coats in plastic bags. Then it becomes standard practice, and nobody’s singled out,” said Cynthia M. Eghbalnia, the district’s coordinator for environmental health and safety.

Schools shouldn’t discount the idea of being infested, however. In Arizona, a janitor who spent time sleeping in a high school teachers’ lounge brought bedbugs in on his clothes, Ms. Gouge said.

Alternatives to Pesticides

Some districts have learned to be prepared the hard way. In one unnamed Michigan district, a 4th grader was sent home repeatedly after bugs were found on him, said Erik S. Foster, a medical entomologist with the Michigan Department of Community Health.

“The child’s parents were upset because the child was missing a lot of school. The school didn’t really know what to do,” he said.

A pest-control company offered to treat the family’s home at no charge, but the bugs resurfaced after the family brought items back into the house that had been taken out beforehand, Mr. Foster said. His agency produced a fact sheet, a procedure for schools to follow if the pests are found on campus, and a sample letter for parents.

Schools should consult district policies and state laws governing the use of pesticides before treatment, if it’s needed, said Glenn A. Waldorf, the director of development for the pest-control company Bell Environmental, of Parsippany, N.J., and they might consider extreme cold or heat treatments rather than poisons.

But before treating school buildings, Mr. Waldorf said, administrators could try bedbug-sniffing dogs—his company has four—to confirm an infestation.

“The problem is mushrooming,” he said. “The schools need to get ahead [of it].”

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as Experts Say Schools Should Plan Ahead for Bedbug Problem

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