By Shereen Siewert

The Wausau School District on Monday notified parents of a positive COVID-19 case at five local schools, while a group of parents is continuing to push for in-person learning to swiftly begin.

The schools impacted are Horace Mann Middle School, John Muir Middle School, Wausau West High School, Grant Elementary and Stettin Elementary, according to a news release. District officials, in their letters to parents, said they are working closely with the Marathon County Health Department to identify, notify and quarantine any students or staff who could have come into close contact with a patient who tested positive.

In an updated news release Tuesday, Communications Director Diana White said two COVID-19 cases affected the five schools.

While schools in Wausau are opening virtually this week, officials held three days of 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 are invited to a supervised space to engage in virtual instruction with a “hub model” of support.

Parents are largely split on the decision to open virtually this fall and some parents are openly skeptical that any cases exist at the schools.

“Maybe they sent one from every school to keep the fear alive!” wrote J.T. Brown, in a Facebook post.

Facebook screen grab, Sept. 8, 2020

“Just a ploy to keep this going longer,” wrote Carly Schreiber Jahns.

Facebook screen grab, Sept. 8, 2020

“WSD is under fire so now they have to make up COVID cases to keep schools closed,” wrote Michael Kluck. “These board members need to (sic) kicked to the curb.”

Facebook screen grab, Sept. 8, 2020

Some members of the Facebook group Parents for Wausau Schools Reopening are urging parents to show up en masse at next week’s school board meeting, slated for 5 p.m. on Sept. 15 at Longfellow Administration Center. A group of students is also planning a protest of virtual learning, according to multiple posts by members of the Facebook group. The protest is planned for Friday at Wausau West High School.

Some members of the group are also vehemently opposed to any mask requirement for students, including those in sports. One member who voiced opposition to masks for sports, Michael Bautsch, is a coach for the D.C. Everest School District, according to the district’s website.

Wausau Pilot & Review has reached out to D.C. Everest Superintendent Kristine Gilmore for reaction to Bautsch’s comments and will update this story with a response.

Wausau parent Jon Creisher, who has been pushing for in-person instruction since the July decision for virtual learning was announced, issued a news release over the weekend criticizing Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker for refusing to call an in-person meeting.

“If Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker truly cares about the voice of her community and the well-being of Wausau schoolchildren, she would agree to hold a listening session at Wausau East auditorium to accommodate the public to have their voices heard,” Creisher said in his release. “At the very least, the September 14 School Board meeting must be held at a large venue to accommodate the public and allow every person in attendance the opportunity to speak.”

But Zunker, who is also a candidate for Wisconsin’s 7th U.S. Congressional District, is not the only one who can call a special meeting. According to district rules, every board member has equal authority to do so. Unclear is whether Creisher has approached any other school board member with his request.

In August, school officials said the 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 at next week’s meeting.

Superintendent Keith Hilts in August 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.

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 in August. Negative trends could also force the board to shift plans to an earlier phase of the plan.

See the latest COVID-19 trends and figures for Marathon County and Wisconsin here.