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Your kid’s bed bugs: Back-to-school advice for the paranoid and merely cautious

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Now that schools are open, we expect to hear a lot more about bed bugs turning up everywhere from elite private institutions to local kindergartens.  

Will the “bed bug letter” become as ubiquitous as the lice letter? 

Maybe not yet.

A newly minted law that requires New York City schools to notify parents of bed bugs anywhere in the school (versus a live bug found on one’s own kid) only applies to public schools, not the city's vast network of image-conscious private schools.

And the law doesn’t actually become effective until next school year, though a spokesperson for New York State Assemblymember Michael N. Gianaris (a sponsor of the law) tells us the NYC Department of Education is working to comply sooner.

But just because bed bugs may not be announced doesn't mean they aren't coming.

The threat

BrickUnderground's pest management guru and entomologist Gil Bloom notes that on the positive side, schools aren't the most hospitable environment for bed bugs, due to the lack of constant hosts and feeding opportunities.

"Bed bugs prefer to feed undercover at night," says Bloom, the president of Standard Pest Management in Queens. "That's not to say they can't survive, but rather that they will not thrive."

Younger students, overall, may be more vulnerable due to more personal interaction and sharing of belongings--"the same things that make head lice more prevalent in elementary school," notes Bloom. 

His company has worked with a number of child development centers to set up protocols to limit bed bug exposure as well as educating staff and parents.  Treating bed-bugged schools can be easier or harder than treating one at home depending on variables that include clutter and cooperation.

"We've been able to keep several centers virtually bed bug free for over four years in an area known for infestation," he says. 

Keeping vigilant without becoming the 'boy in the bubble'

Given the city's current infestation levels, there's a fair chance that bed bugs will be attending classes at an academic institution near you this fall.

The precautions that you ought to take to limit your exposure at home ought depend on your "threat level."

If your kid's best friend has bed bugs, for instance, or you have received the dreaded bed bug letter from school, you may want to step up your bed bug vigilance.  

As Bloom says, the object is not to create a "boy in the bubble scenario, at which point many people give up."

Back-to-school bed bug prevention 101

Bed bugs feed on people, and then--unlike lice--move off the body to find shelter. So backpacks and coats rather than your actual child are the primary vehicles of transmission when it comes to bed bugs at school, and thus the primary focus of your defenses.

  • Encourage your child keep his or her backpack and coat isolated from other children’s belongings as much as possible, suggests Bloom. That means avoid tossing backpacks on a heap of others, and draping coats over the back of a chair versus in a pile of others or stuffed into a cubby.
    • Keep school bags and coats out of the bedroom and off the bed and couch.  Stray bugs will need to work harder to become established, potentially falling victim to your vacuum cleaner on the way to your bed, for instance.  You can sleep even more securely by placing coaster-like traps (eg, ClimbUp Interceptors or the more discreet-looking Bed Bug Barriers) under the furniture legs, while pulling the furniture away from the walls, nightstand and other alternative means of egress.  (See How to Bed Bug Proof Your NYC Apartment.) 
    • You're more likely to find bed bugs in the seams and crannies of the exterior of your child's backpack, according to Bloom. So although books and homework need to come out (and placed on a table or desk, not the bed or couch), consider isolating the backpacks themselves in a sealed plastic bag or sealable Tupperware-type container or plastic bin. You may also want to isolate coats in a similar fashion. 
    • When your child’s friends come over, you might want to put their coats and knapsacks into separate sealed bags, or Tupperware-type containers or plastic bins.
    • Once a week, empty knapsacks, inspecting items as you go.  Remove all crayons and put the bags and coats in the dryer on high for 30 minutes to kill bugs and eggs.
    • Vacuum floors and furniture regularly, discarding the vacuum bag when you’re done.

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    My babysitter has bed bugs

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