By Shereen Siewert

Members of a “Parents for Wausau Schools Reopening” Facebook group, including the Marathon County and town of Stettin clerks, are calling for protests and recalls after the Wausau School Board voted to begin the fall semester virtually.

The group, which has attracted nearly 650 members, was “made out of pure desperation to make our voices heard about the harmful consequences of the Wausau School Boards decision to implement virtually only learning for the 2020/2021 school year,” according to a post by group administrator April Van Rixel. “This group is being organized to form a group of like minded individuals who are as fed up as me. We will protest and make our voices heard once more.”

A petition to reopen schools, posted on the group page, has 389 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

Though Wausau’s decision came down this week, D.C. Everest has not yet made a final determination about schools in the south metro area.

Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker said she understands some people disagree with the board’s July 27 decision, but said there are also many people in the community who do agree.

“Public service comes with tough decisions and accountability,” Zunker told Wausau Pilot & Review. “We made a decision to ensure the health and safety of our students and staff and will be frequently re-evaluating  to determine when it will be safe to re-open buildings.”

But Zunker did express concern after learning some members of the group are planning a protest at her home, rather than on public property.

“As the solo parent of a young child, there is risk to my safety and my son’s safety with proposed protest at my private residence,” Zunker said. “There is risk to the safety and security of any school board member, their families or their neighbors with protests at private residences. That is completely unacceptable. Public service does not mean that elected officials must endure intimidation. People have the right to protest on public property, but there is risk of destruction and violence that can occur by congregating in protest at someone’s private residence.”

Zunker also shared a screenshot of a message she received from Van Rixel calling the board’s decision “100 percent political and not scientific.”

Marathon County Clerk Kim Trueblood is a member of the group and is calling for Zunker to organize a new public meeting to discuss the decision and allow in-person parent attendance. In a back-and-forth with Stettin Clerk Marlo Turner, Trueblood suggested that if Zunker refused to call a meeting, the group should “leak” the request to the media to ensure the issue gains enough public attention.

“Was just about to say that,” Turner responded.

Facebook screen grab July 30, 2020

Some parents and school officials are openly questioning whether Trueblood’s comments are appropriate, given her role as an elections official. As the clerk, Trueblood is responsible for appointing, recruiting, and training election workers and overseeing ballots, voting equipment, and polling places. When citizens submit petitions to recall a public official, or an initiative for the ballot, the clerk handles the documents in accordance with state and federal law.

Trueblood, in group posts, acknowledged her role as an elections official but offered to “get info & do anything behind the scenes.”

Facebook screen grab July 30, 2020

Marathon County Administrator Lance Leonhard said that while he does not directly supervise county elected officials, he will be sharing and discussing Trueblood’s posts with the County Board chair.

“The county’s ethics policy communicates our organization’s approach quite clearly,” Leonhard said. “Marathon County is committed to the highest standards of conduct by and among public officials and employees in the performance of their public duties. Individual and collective adherence to high ethical standards by public officials and employees is central to the creation of and maintenance of public trust and confidence in Marathon County Government.”

County policy, Leonhard said, does not differentiate between in-person and social media communication.

“I take our organization’s commitment to core values and ethics exceedingly seriously and I can assure you that I will consider this information closely and will take any, and all, steps that I believe to be appropriate,” Leonhard said.

Health department recommendations

During Monday’s special meeting, the board acted after hearing Wausau Superintendent Keith Hilts’ recommendation to begin the semester virtually.

Hilts is one of several local superintendents who received a letter dated July 27 from the Marathon County Health Department, along with three other area health agencies. In the letter, health officials urge caution for the upcoming school year and ask that schools opt to open in increments.

“The reopening of schools creates a setting where non-household members will be interacting, thereby increasing exposure for COVID-19 and the likely spread of the virus,” the letter states. “To ensure success in schools reopening, we are recommending schools to reopen incrementally, with their core mission in mind; academic education, enhancing children’s social and emotional health.”

The health departments’ letter goes on to recommend schools pause co-curricular activities such as sports, music and drama to see what can be offered safely.

“Co-curricular activities, including sports, increases student’s, teacher’s and support staff’s risk for being exposed to the virus; thus increasing the risk for school closures,” the letter stated.

The future of fall sports is murky as coronavirus cases statewide continue to increase. Last week, the WIAA Board of Control voted to move forward with some fall sports in mid-August, but pushed back the start to the football, volleyball and boys soccer to Sept. 7 in an effort to allow students to participate on some level during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regardless of the ongoing debate, Zunker urged the community to unite as the pandemic continues.

“We need to come together in this pandemic – our children are watching our collective response and learning from our example.”