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FHSD Board Members Discuss Potential Response to the New COVID Strain

A+person+puts+a+mask+on+their+face.+Covid+has+recently+been+returning+as+a+concern+to+healthcare+workers.+
Credit to Michaela Manfull
A person puts a mask on their face. Covid has recently been returning as a concern to healthcare workers.

Many have come to believe that COVID is a thing of the past, but that assumption is now being challenged. According to the New York Times, COVID hospitalizations have increased by roughly 30 percent in the past month and multiple students at FHN have contracted the virus since returning to school.

The World Health Organization has reported that the cause of this new surge of COVID is the emergence of two new “subvariants” of the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus: the BA.2.86 subvariant, nicknamed “Pirola”, and the EG.5 subvariant, nicknamed “Eris.” As both are subvariants of Omicron, both spread faster than most strains of the virus, but are less likely to cause severe symptoms. Nonetheless, new COVID cases are being met with a similar degrees of alarm as they were in 2021 and 2022.

Everyone remembers vividly the effects of COVID in 2021 and 2022, especially students in the Francis Howell School District. Sporting events were closed to the general public if not canceled altogether, indoor mask mandates were enforced with suspensions, a myriad of restrictions with the justification of “stopping the spread” were put in place, and students who declined to receive the COVID vaccine were disallowed from coming to school for over a week if they came within the presence of one who later tested positive for COVID. And while it would seem as though those practices were a thing of the past, many schools across the country have reintroduced similar measures in response to the recent growth of COVID cases.

These COVID mitigation measures did not come the first time without controversy. In Francis Howell, parents packed board meetings to protest COVID mandates which they saw as unsupported by empirical evidence. These concerns, combined with certain other actions which the same parents took issue with, led these parents to form a political action committee which aimed to elect school board members who are more skeptical of COVID mitigation measures.

This is relevant because this same political action committee, Francis Howell Families, has seen huge success. In the two elections held since the COVID pandemic, Francis Howell Families-backed candidates have won every seat, now forming a supermajority of the school board. As COVID mitigation strategies are handled almost-entirely at the district level in Francis Howell, this new board majority will undoubtedly impact what measures are put in place in the name of limiting the spread of the virus.

Two board members briefly laid out their philosophy on how the district ought to handle COVID if it comes back. One of them was Janet Stiglich who also served as a school nurse and the district’s school nurse coordinator from 1992 to 2016. Elected in 2021, she is part of the last class of board members elected before COVID measures became a mainstream issue. The other is Jane Puszkar, a former neuroscience nurse and the founder of the Association of Stroke Coordinators. Elected in 2023, COVID measures were fresh on the minds of voters. While the directors expressed conflicting views, both cited their medical experience as influential on their determinations.

Stiglich stated that her decision would rely heavily on the recommendation of the superintendent, Dr. Kenneth Roumpos, and the district nurse coordinator, Barbara Morse. 

“I would have to look at what the recommendation would be coming from our superintendent and his team,” Stiglich said. “They have a new nurse coordinator now, Barbara Morse. I’d have to see what her thoughts were and then I would make my decision based on that. One of the things I learned the very first year I was in this role is that I have to make my decisions based on the knowledge that I have and I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror every morning and say I made what I felt was the best decision at the time with information I was given.” 

Stiglich went on to express her confidence in the ability of masks to limit viral spread generally.

“Not only did we prevent COVID in our district—you know, most of the COVID transmission was outside of school, not in school—but our strep numbers were down, our cold numbers were down, our seasonal flu numbers were down,” Stiglich said. “We weren’t seeing those kinds of sicknesses either. And people say, well, that was because of the masks. Absolutely.” 

She also clarified that her considerations were not always going to be the same, given the benefit of hindsight of the pandemic.

“You know, look, in three years, what’s changed? There’s vaccines available now for those who choose to get them,” Stiglich said.

All in all, Stiglich made clear that the welfare of the students was her primary objective.

“I think what we have to do is just look at what’s best for our kids and at that time and make decisions based on that,” Stiglich said.

On the other hand, Puszkar expressed a general skepticism of COVID mandates of any sort.

“If you want to wear a mask, you’re free to wear a mask,” Puszkar said. “If you want to get vaccinated, you’re free to get vaccinated. That all should be a personal decision. I do not agree with the fact that one size fits all and then everybody should wear a mask and then everybody should get vaccinated.” 

She went on to state an outright lack of faith in masks and vaccines as a worthwhile response to COVID. 

“As a nurse, a graduate from SLU, the program that I went through was very heavily focused on research, and that’s been something that I have carried throughout all other aspects of my life and what I’ve come to find is that masks don’t work,” Puszkar said. “If masks did, we wouldn’t have the spread of COVID. And I’m not quite convinced, in fact, I’m not at all convinced that the vaccines work, because if they did work, we wouldn’t have the spread of COVID.” 

Puszkar also reflected on the relatively-minor effects of COVID on children, and how that balances with the potential harm of masks. 

“For healthy kids, adolescents, and young adults, the mortality rate is very small and very minor,” Puszkar said. “Not to say that their life isn’t worth saving, but at the same time, there’s just no reason for us all to mask up for such a small amount of return, because actually the masks that we wear are more detrimental and more toxic to our breathing and our basic immune systems than it would be to not wear one.” 

Puszkar also shared her thoughts on mandating COVID vaccines for students, as other districts across the country have.

“I will reserve the fact that like I said before, polio, tetanus, those vaccines that have been tested and improved over the years really work and do prevent those diseases, I’m not going to be one that would ever support a vaccine that number one, is unproven; number two, the adverse events exceed the efficacy; and three, has not been studied,” Puszkar said.

Puszkar also said she would favor an individualized approach to COVID in FHSD rather than looking to other districts and mirroring their response.

“Well, I do think that all these districts are different,” Puszkar said. “I don’t think all districts are the same. So, would I support an individualized decision? Absolutely. I would support a decision based on, in fact, heavily researched, proven. And it would not be an off-the-cuff type of decision. Show me the data.”

Both board members agreed that COVID was likely to be an ongoing issue for many years to come, and both compared it to seasonal viruses such as the flu. While there was not a consensus on how the virus ought to be handled, the board members both expressed that the health, safety, and education of the students were the supreme interests which they were pursuing and would continue to pursue.

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