By Shereen Siewert

Members of the Wausau School Board on Monday approved plans to gradually return to in-person classes this fall in stages, which will depend on ongoing infection rates and other data.

The board last month voted to begin the semester on a fully virtual platform, a decision that prompted strong reaction from some parents. That decision will hold for the beginning of the semester despite a petition signed by hundreds of people urging a return to traditional learning. The petition, along with emails received related to the decision, will be posted on the Wausau School District website for public review.

Lee Webster formally put forward a motion Monday to open classrooms, allowing parents and guardians to decide whether to send their children to school virtually or in person.

Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker urged the board to move forward with the plan as voted on during the July 27 meeting. Changing course now would be “reckless and dangerous,” said Zunker, who is also a candidate for the U.S. 7th Congressional seat.

Lance Trollop said he hopes the schools can transition to the next phase sooner, rather than later, in part because he is not convinced that all students are safer at home rather than in school. Trollop said he is not, however, comfortable moving to fully in-person classes at this time.

Pat McKee said his opinion shifted since he voted for virtual opening two weeks ago based on changing data and a statement by health officials in support of in-person opening, when possible. McKee voted against the staged reopening plan but did not vote to reopen classrooms as proposed by Webster.

Webster’s motion ultimately failed, 6-2, with Jim Bouche joining Webster casting the two votes in favor.

School will begin by holding three days of “Ready for School Conferences,” from Sept. 1 to Sept. 3 with some introductory virtual instruction. Students in specified residential areas without broadband will be invited to a supervised space to engage in virtual instruction with a “hub model” of support.

Under the current plan, higher risk sports like football, soccer, volleyball and swimming may not happen, depending on WIAA guidance, while lower risk sports such as golf, tennis and cross country would still be allowed. The WIAA will meet later this week to determine the fate of fall football and other sports. Staff are expected to work from schools unless they have qualifying medical needs.

In addition, staff will take attendance and work to allow students to experience their school day with synchronous instruction and support.

The school board will review data from health officials and other school districts regularly with a goal of returning to in-person classes in phases. Data considered will include county and municipality COVID-19 figures, attendance and anecdotal information from districts holding in-person classes, and information from the Marathon County Health Department. The first review will take place Sept. 14.

Superintendent Keith Hilts said the next phase could begin as soon as two weeks after a decision is made by the board. The two-week delay will allow transportation and food vendors to make appropriate plans and will allow teachers to adjust learning plans.

The next step, Plan B, implements blended learning with in-person instruction while maintaining social distancing. In an alternating week schedule, half of students will attend classes in person Monday through Thursday while the other half attend class from home via webcam and Google Meet. Fridays are left to support virtual students and could include hub model activities.

Teachers would deliver direct instruction while monitoring students attending virtually. Students will wear masks.

Under Plan B, students generally stay in their rooms except for recess and at lunchtime, when students would go to the lunchroom to collect their food before heading back to their classroom.

“Just to be clear the day will look very different,” said Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker. “Nobody is dismissing how critical this piece is but let’s all be aware that when we do return to the classroom it will be very different.”

Under the final step, Plan A, with a full return to in-person classes, social distancing is not possible.

Upward trends of COVID-19 cases, rising percentages of positive tests or poor attendance at other districts with in-person classes could prevent the district from moving from one phase to the next, Hilts said. Negative trends could also force the board to shift plans to an earlier phase of the plan.

Hilts said the district will reach out to families for feedback as the plan moves forward with clear questions to gauge their comfort level with returning their children to the classroom. Parents were also polled in June.

See a full summary of the plan, including details on how specialized education will take place, below.