SPN: Bed bugs happen: Even in school

Written by: Dr. Mike Merchant, Professor and Urban Entomologist

A message to all parents with kids in school:  Bed bugs happen.

Image of a fed bed bug, by Gary Alpert Harvard

Bed bugs happen even in your children’s school, and like it or not we’re all going to have to deal with it. That will mean fighting the inclination to go into hyper-protective parent mode. Instead we all need to relax.  Deep breaths.  Eyes closed. Find your center.  Breeeathe… it will be all right.

It doesn’t matter what kind of school our kids attend, there’s a good chance that sooner or later you’ll hear rumors of bed bugs on campus.  I say this with some confidence because, in case you haven’t heard, these tiny, bloodsucking pests have become something of an epidemic over the past 15 years.  It’s inevitable that sooner or later children who live in infested homes will bring bed bugs to school.  While statistics are few, the numbers of public and private schools reporting problems appear to be on the rise.

Even so, the number of schools with bed bug infestations remain few and far between.  Notice the difference between a report of an introduction (one or a few bed bugs being brought somewhere) and an infestation (an entrenched, actively feeding, reproducing and sustainable community).

Schools get introductions, but almost never get infestations of bed bugs.  Why? Because schools are dynamic environments.  Our kids don’t usually sleep at school (at least not long enough to become a bug snack). On top of that, school children rarely slow down long enough to interest a shy, retiring blood-feeding parasite.  And that’s a good thing.

  Schools get introductions, but almost never get infestations of bed bugs.

In fact, until this week, I had not heard of a documented case of a public or private school with a bed bug infestation.  Dr. Marcia Anderson, of the Environmental Protection Agency, enlightened me this week about a few of the schools she has investigated over the years with actual, if isolated, infestations of bed bugs.  In my opinion, however, the stories seems to be a case where the exceptions serve to prove the rule.  And such stories are rare in my experience.

Classroom reading area with bed bug infested sofa. Photo courtesy M. Anderson

The cases Marcia reported involved donated sofas. In some of the cases, love seats and couches were brought into classrooms for reading areas.  Children thought the furniture was a good place to toss their backpacks, and eventually bed bugs found their way from backpack to sofa. In these situations, bed bugs were able to survive for a time thanks to students and teachers who would sit for extended times, or even nap, on the comfiest furniture in school.  At least long enough to embolden a bed bug to sneak out for a meal.

In another school, discarded, but decent-looking sofas and love seat were donated to deck out the teacher’s lounge.  Turns out all of the aforementioned upholstered furniture was discarded for a reason.  It had bed bugs.  In a couple of these cases the district had the furniture steam-treated, in one case, repeatedly.  In most of the cases, the problem went away when the furniture was removed… no pesticides needed.

And that’s my point.  Even though bed bugs are easily carried from home to school, we shouldn’t assume that our schools will necessarily get overrun with bed bugs. The chance of a stray bed bug being able to safely take the blood meals required to establish a long-term new home in a school is low.  And infestations are so rare because individual bed bugs don’t commonly survive long when moved to a relatively hostile environment, like a school.

So what should schools be doing about bed bugs?  First, every school should have a policy about bed bugs.  It should involve the following:

  • Kids should not be singled out for notice, or stigmatized, for bringing bed bugs to school.  Kids have a difficult enough time without being labeled as bed bug smugglers.  Instead, the parents of kids with bed bugs should be discreetly advised about the problem, and assisted with information about how to make their home bed bug free.
  • Backpacks of kids from bed bug infested homes should be isolated, or treated with heat, and the child encouraged not to put their belongings on, under or next to beds, sofas, or stuffed chairs overnight.
  • Pest control should be asked to inspect trouble spots and vacuum or steam furniture within 5-10 feet of a bed bug sighting.  Pesticides should almost never be needed.
  • Baited interceptor monitors should be placed around trouble spots and left overnight, or better yet, over the weekend.  After a week or two of this kind of sampling (and trapping), the classroom can be declared clear.
  • In the meantime, students, staff and teachers should be educated about bed bugs and what they look like.  When and whether to inform parents about an introduction should be part of the policy.
  • School nurses should be involved in the process.  A nurses office can be a safe place for a child to have their belongings thoroughly inspected or heat treated, or stored for the day.  Items with suspected infestations can usually be safely stored in a large garbage bag or smooth, vertical sided tote box that bed bugs find difficult to exit.

The good news in all this is that bed bugs are not known to carry any disease, and the chance that your child will bring home a bed bug is low.

It’s possible to both overreact, and underreact, to bed bugs.  Overreaction might result in unnecessary disruption and expense for the school, or unnecessary pesticides being used. And you don’t want that.  Under-reaction is usually due to not knowing what to do.  Inquire if your school has a policy for dealing with bed bugs.  If not, suggest that they look at our model protocol for schools (and don’t allow used sofas to be brought to campus).

And now, relax.  Deep breaths.  Eyes closed. Find your center.  Breathe… it will be all right.

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