Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are a modern menace, spreading from house to house and apartment to apartment. But because nobody sleeps there, it’s unclear whether bed bugs spread in schools.
Parents, teachers, and pupils can bring bed bugs to school. Once there, they can either lay eggs or hide in somebody else’s belongings. If spotted, the school usually closes for treatment, but there’s no guarantee that they will notice that their school has a bed bug problem.
Bed bugs can spread in any public space, such as school buses and (public and private) schools. But if you learn about bed bugs and how to avoid getting them, then you’re less likely to be affected.
Can Bed Bugs Be Brought to School?
Bed bugs can be brought to school in several ways. The majority of infestations begin because bed bugs hitch a ride with a person. They can then go wherever you go. This is how it works:
- An egg-laying female will seek out a new harborage, where she can lay her eggs and hide
- She will find her way inside your bag, clothing or other belongings
- When you next lay down your belongings, the bed bug will scuttle out
Bed bugs avoid being seen and heading out in daylight. They may, therefore, hide in a bag or piece of clothing overnight before it’s transported away. They will do so when you aren’t carrying or wearing the item, in order to avoid you.
In this way, bed bugs can be taken anywhere. It’s easy to imagine situations in which bed bugs could be brought to a school. Examples could include:
- Bed bugs hiding inside school bags and gym clothing
- Bed bugs hiding inside coats, and spreading to other students’ belongings
- Bed bugs hiding in shoes, e.g., inside the shoes, between the tongue and the shoe, and between the sole and the shoe
To be clear, bed bugs don’t spread through physical contact. You can’t carry bed bugs in your hair or on your body. But they can be transported from one place to another.
The same applies to lots of other ‘public’ places. You can get bed bugs from hotels, hostels, hospitals, public transport and more. That’s how bed bugs spread in the modern age.
Bed Bugs on School Buses
Bed bugs can hide in school buses (or other forms of public transport). This is one of the ways that they have begun to spread. They can hide in the seats, or spread from person to person.
An affected person will accidentally pick one up from home in their belongings. When they set their bag, scarf or hat down on the bus, the bed bug will scuttle away. They’ll then hide in the upholstery of the seat, or the plastic body of the bus.
When hidden, they may start laying their eggs. They may stay where they are and come out to feed occasionally. More likely, though, is that they will seek to hide in somebody else’s belongings.
Wherever they end up, they may then either get into the school, or home with another pupil. Gradually all of the pupils’ homes may become infested.
Bed Bugs in Vehicles
In the same way, bed bugs can infest a car. The parent or child can pick the bed bugs up from home. They will then stay in the car, and can infest the belongings of other passengers.
This is an issue because treatment focuses on the house. A parent may treat their home thoroughly. However, the infestation could restart when they pick up bed bugs again from their vehicle.
On the plus side, a bed bug can’t spread from one car to another. Once they’re inside, they’re sealed inside unless they hitch a ride with your or your child.
They can only spread between cars when a person picks them up from one car before riding in another car. This could happen if:
- Your child gets a lift home from another parent
- Your child gets a lift to their friend’s house in another parent’s car
- You give a lift to another child
- You get into a car with another child’s parent/s
In these circumstances, you or somebody else could unwittingly spread the bed bugs.
Can Bed Bugs Live in Schools?
The EPA’s guidelines are clear that you can find bed bugs in schools. However, what isn’t clear is whether they can live in a school as a full-term infestation.
What does this mean? There’s a difference between passing through the school, and living there permanently. The bed bug has a set life cycle which runs like so:
- Eggs are laid
- They hatch a week later
- They begin feeding as soon as they hatch
- Each time they feed, they develop and become larger. Each stage is called an instar
- They take ten days to two weeks to reach adulthood
- As adults, they continually feed and mate
- Each time the female bed bug wants to lay an egg, it must feed
Nothing is stopping a bed bug from fulfilling its life cycle in a school. They have a regular supply of hosts in the teachers and children. They have many places to hide.
The only issue is that there’s nobody in the school at night. Bed bugs prefer feeding at night because they’re photophobic. That means they don’t like to come out when it’s light.
However, there are two circumstances in which bed bugs will try and feed during the day. These are when the infestation is large, or when there is no host at night. Both of these circumstances may apply at a school.
Do Bed Bugs Lead to Infestations in School?
According to the United Federation of Schools, over a thousand cases of bed bugs were found in schools in the 2009-10 school year. This was the beginning of the bed bug resurgence, and an 88% increase over the previous year.
That was a long time ago, but the problem still exists. A school in north-eastern Ohio was closed because of a bed bug problem in 2016. Several were found, and the school proactively closed to deal with the issue.
However, cases of bed bugs in school don’t necessarily mean that the bed bug sets up an entire infestation. The problem is usually one or two bed bugs that a child brought in. It’s rare for a bed bug to set up an actual infestation, i.e., lay eggs.
To be clear, a bed bug goes through several cycles before it becomes an adult. It grows larger each time it feeds. This takes two weeks. It’s highly unlikely that the problem would become so noticeable, but the school would remain open.
The case in Ohio is a good example. The school was closed and treated after four bugs were found. CBS News state the school was treated twice soon after it was closed. This is indicative of how most schools approach the problem.
Can Bed Bugs Spread at School?
So, it’s clear that bed bugs can live in schools, although they don’t usually. However, despite not living there, they can still spread from person to person.
If they aren’t living in the school, then it’s less likely that they’ll spread to every pupil. The issue is that when there are one or two bed bugs present, they’re usually egg-laying females.
That’s because it’s the egg-laying females that try to find new places to live. They move away from their existing harborage because if they didn’t, the males would keep trying to mate with them. This damages their shell and can kill them.
This individual bed bug will seek out somewhere secure when it arrives at the school. But soon enough, when it gets hungry, it will seek out the smell of people. It will, therefore, hide in a person’s belongings, be they a pupil, a parent or a teacher.
So, even though there may only be one bed bug in a school, that still causes concern. That’s why schools close even if they only find a few. Then they can start treatment.
How to Treat Bed Bugs at School
Treating bed bugs at school is much the same as treating them in a residential building. The only issue is that they need to be treated on a much larger scale. There are two main ways to treat bed bugs in schools, including:
- Pesticidal sprays. Pesticides like permethrin kill bed bugs on contact. They continue working for months after treatment.
- Heat treatment. Heat treatment for bed bugs is 100% effective when done correctly. The temperature is raised to a point where bed bugs can’t survive.
Reputable pest control experts will likely offer both forms of treatment. The best for a school is likely pesticide. That’s because heat treatment only works once. If the bugs are reintroduced, the infestation can grow again quickly.
Permethrin pesticides are harmless to people unless inhaled in large quantities. Regular use won’t hurt people or children. It can be harmful to cats, although this won’t be an issue in a school. It can also harm reptiles.
There’s little you can do as a parent. Don’t encourage your child to do anything about the problem directly. Any handheld spray they might use won’t work. Plus there may be people there allergic to the chemicals used inside.
Besides, it’s the school’s responsibility to treat the infestation — not yours, and not your child’s.
DIY Bed Bug Treatments
DIY bed bug treatments may also help you control the spread of bed bugs. You can kill bed bugs in quarantine by using a small amount of pesticide. This could be either a natural or synthetic pesticide. Natural options include essential oil sprays and diatomaceous earth.
The effect of the pesticide is magnified by it being used in a controlled space. You should, therefore, use it in the sealed box at home. You could also spray some in your child’s bag.
It’s best not to use a synthetic spray for this purpose. That’s because repeated exposure over a long time could carry health risks. DIY natural methods aren’t anywhere near as dangerous.
Pesticide can also be effective at deterring bed bugs from hitching a ride home in your child’s bag. For full effect, spray the bag each morning before your child leaves for school.
How to Prevent Getting Bed Bugs at School
Given that bed bugs can live and spread in school, let’s find out how to prevent them from spreading. These methods involve control: controlling where you or your child put things, for example. Or, controlling your home environment through quarantine.
How Do You Get Bed Bugs at School?
You can conceivably get bed bugs from almost any indoor location. Bed bugs are good at hiding. That applies in the context of any public building, including hospitals, hotels, schools, and offices.
So where can bed bugs hide in a school? They will pick any secluded place. That includes, but is not limited to, the following places:
- Cracks and gaps in the wall or between floorboards
- In any upholstery in the school, e.g., the chairs that have padding
- Cracks that allow them to get inside walls
There are two ways that you can catch bed bugs at school. These are when the bed bugs get into your clothes, or your belongings.
Bed bugs don’t like getting close to people unless it’s to feed. That means that bed bugs in your belongings are more likely. They will crawl out of their hiding place and into your bag, hat or scarf.
They are attracted by warmth, carbon dioxide, and the scent of people. So if you’re carrying a scarf, or your gym bag has unwashed clothes in it, they will be attracted to the smell.
What to Do About Bed Bugs in School (for Your Child)
One of the best things you can do is encourage your child to be aware of bed bugs. Teach them what they are, why they’re so difficult to get rid of, and how they feed. Teach them how you can catch them, too.
There are basic steps your child can take that can reduce the chance of getting bed bugs, including:
- Not leaving their bag on chairs or the ground. If possible, have them hang their bag up on a hook. Bed bugs can’t climb up that high to get into a bag.
- Avoiding sitting on chairs with padding. Bed bugs prefer padding and upholstery as it provides more places for them to hide.
- Checking their clothes and belongings when they get home. They may spot a bed bug in their bag or clothing, and can kill it there and then.
- Remaining aware of what bed bugs look like. If your child knows what bed bugs look like they can avoid them if they see one.
Aside from that, it’s up to you as the parent to ensure no bed bugs get into your home.
Bed Bug Quarantine
The best way to avoid bed bugs is through quarantine. Quarantine is essentially isolation. You seek to isolate the bed bug before it gets a chance to infest your house.
The quarantine can also mean keeping your child’s things ‘quarantined’ while at school. That means sealing or isolating them so that bed bugs can’t get inside in the first place. Methods include:
- Using a sealed bag. If there’s nowhere for the bed bug to hide in your child’s bag, they can’t come home with them.
- Sealing up unwashed clothing. If unwashed clothing is in an airtight plastic bag or tub, the bed bugs won’t smell the sweat in them. This prevents them from being attracted to you or your child’s belongings.
- Keeping school clothes separate. When your child gets home, keep the clothes they wore that day separate. Leave them in a sealed tub until you can wash them.
The most critical bed bug quarantine is after your child gets home. Encourage them to change and put their school clothes in the sealed box. Do the same with their bag.
In doing so, you contain any bed bugs that might want to infest your home. They won’t starve inside the box. However, if you fill it with pesticide, then they will die. They also won’t climb out if the sides are solid smooth plastic.
You should take your child’s clothes from the box to the laundry. Laundering clothes is guaranteed to kill any bed bugs or eggs. For non-launderable items, consider using a pesticide spray.
School Protocol after Discovering Bed Bugs
There is no set school policy that all schools follow after bed bugs are discovered. However, there are things that schools are advised to do by the EPA and other bodies. These guidelines include:
- Not sending children home if they are suspected of causing an infestation. Missed school days have a severe impact on children.
- Sending a letter home to inform parents of the situation.
- Sending a letter to any parent with bed bugs in their home, advising how to kill them.
If bed bugs are discovered on a child or belongings, they are removed discreetly from class. They are taken to the nurse, where they and their belongings are examined. Any bed bugs found are retained for identification.
When the nurse finds any bed bugs, they will then directly inform the parent of the situation. They may also notify the teacher of the affected class. However, bear in mind that these are guidelines. There is no guarantee that your child’s school will deal with bed bugs in this way.
Bed Bugs and School Attendance
Schools are not advised to exclude students if they have a known bed bug issue. That’s because it would be unfair on the student to deny them their education.
You also shouldn’t stop your child going to school if it seems there’s a bed bug problem there. This could land you in trouble. And, again, it’s not right to deny your child their education because of something they don’t control. If bed bugs are found at your school, follow this procedure:
- Allow the school time to get in touch with you. They’re drafting a letter to send to parents.
- If they don’t contact you, contact them. Ask what they’re going to do about the issue. The best thing they can do is close the school and treat affected areas.
- Continue sending your child to school. In the meantime, set up a quarantine system and educate your child about what bed bugs are.
If the school refuse to take action, it may be possible to sue them. People have successfully sued apartment block owners, movie theaters, hotels and more for bed bugs. You can successfully claim:
- Economic damages, i.e., medical expenses and property damage.
- Non-economic damages, i.e., pain and suffering, emotional harm, and punitive damages.
This is the last resort and takes time to get through the courts. You also need evidence that the bed bugs were in the school at all. If you think this might be necessary to talk to a lawyer and they can guide you through the process.