AUGUSTA — Even though they're creepy, bedbugs are not a reason to close school, Maine's state epidemiologist said Monday.
Schools that find bedbugs should bring in pest management experts who can answer one question, said Dr. Stephen Sears: Is this an infestation, or a few hitchhikers? Unlike lice, bedbugs do not live on people, he explained.
If the problem is a small number that hitchhiked to school on backpacks or clothing, schools should treat the affected rooms, but not close, he said.
On the heels of the Sabattus Primary School closing Oct. 5 and 6 because of bedbugs, the state Department of Education has issued guidelines on how schools should react.
In general bedbugs may come into schools, but large numbers won't take up residence because no one sleeps at schools, Sears said.
Bedbugs are nocturnal. During the day they hide in creases of beds and other things and come out at night to feed.
Across the country, the bedbug problem has increased dramatically recently, with invasions almost everywhere people are: Homes, hotels, movie theaters and schools. “It's not surprising the critters are in kids' homes” and showing up in schools, Sears said.
“Fortunately bedbugs don't carry disease,” Sears said. Bedbugs can keep people up at night, give them rashes, and are difficult and expensive to eradicate.
Ralph Blumenthal of Atlantic Pest Solutions, which treated the Sabattus Primary School, said his company did not recommend the school close.
“They made a decision on the spot” before the state guidelines were issued, Blumenthal said.
Sabattus-Wales-Litchfield School Superintendent James Hodgkin could not be reached Monday.
School board member Will Fessenden, who has two children at the primary school, said last week he supported and urged Hodgkin to close the school for two days when bedbugs were found.
“It was not so much the health risk, but this is a new thing for the town. There are a lot of questions,” Fessenden said. Knowing what they know now from an Oct. 7 forum, the school would probably not be closed for the small amount of bedbugs found, Fessenden said. “Everyone is more educated about it.”
Minutes from the Oct. 7 forum with Atlantic Pest Solutions show that dogs detected bedbugs in two classes of the Sabattus Primary School. The number of bugs the dogs found was small, he said.
Also two items at the middle school were found to have bedbugs, as were two buses. The items were bagged and treated. The classrooms and buses were treated by bringing in large, commercial heaters that use their own generators. The rooms and buses were heated to 130 degrees for hours, Blumenthal said. Temperatures of 113 and higher are lethal to bedbugs, he said.
In Lewiston one week ago one student was found with bedbugs, said Superintendent Leon Levesque. The the student was isolated, monitored and their parents were contacted.
Levesque said he would only contact parents of an entire classroom or school if there was a widespread infestation. Part of the problem “is dealing with the hysteria,” Levesque said. If bedbugs are found in a hospital, “you don't close the hospital, you deal with the area. Have it cleaned, monitored.”
With bedbugs a growing problem, “people need to understand this is going to be a situation at any public place, the theaters, hospitals, buses, everywhere you sit,” Levesque said. “Schools aren't going to be exempt.”
School bed bug guidelines
Schools need to become educated and plan for bed bugs to show up, Sears said. If bed bugs are found on a student, the student should be discreetly removed from the classroom so a nurse or qualified individual can examine the student's clothing and belongings. A bug on a student doesn't necessarily mean it came from that student's home; it could have hopped from one person to another.
Any bed bugs found should be removed and collected for identification, keeping the specimen intact.
If a classroom is affected by bed bugs, the school may consider notifying parents with a letter. The state guidelines have provided schools with sample letters.
When bed bugs are found in classrooms, a professional should treat the area. Backpacks, lunchboxes and other items that travel back and forth to school can be inspected daily and sealed in plastic containers at home.
All cracks and crevices should be vacuumed, the vacuum bag disposed, and all hard surfaces cleaned.
Students should not be excluded from school unless repeated efforts have been made to remedy an infestation, according to the state guidelines.
For more information, http://www.maine.gov/dhhs/boh/ddc/epi/bedbugs/bed-bugs.pdf