By Shereen Siewert
After more than three hours of discussion, members of the Wausau School Board on Monday did not move forward with plans to reopen schools, but will seek feedback from teachers and parents along with new data before their next meeting, set for Sept. 28.
Wausau School administrators recommended moving to Phase B of their reopening plan, which would have blended learning with in-person instruction while maintaining social distancing for all students. In an alternating week schedule, half of students would attend classes in person Monday through Thursday while the other half attend class from home via webcam and Google Meet. Fridays would be left to support virtual students and could include hub model activities.
The board considered a flurry of motions before coming to a conclusion. The board is in an unusual position without a ninth tie-breaking member, after Theresa Miles stepped down last month due to illness. A replacement has not yet been chosen for Miles’ seat.
Jane Rusch initially moved to stay in the current Phase C, with fully virtual learning, while refining how the district is addressing struggling students. Zunker seconded the motion, which failed by a 4-4 vote.
Board member Pat McKee said no decision is perfect and each comes with a set of risks, some of which can have long-term effects on students. McKee proposed having elementary students, pre-K through grade 5, return to school Oct. 5, with secondary students having the option to come back Oct. 19 on a modified schedule that allows for appropriate sanitizing procedures and time for teachers to prep. That motion also failed by a 4-4 vote.
Lance Trollop also moved to send elementary students back to school fully on Oct. 5, a proposal that also failed by a 4-4 vote. Lee Webster proposed sending children through third grade and special education students back to the classroom. That motion also failed, 4-4. The board is now seeking data to determine which age groups, if any, should return to school, along with risks and other considerations.
In late July, Wausau School Board members voted to start the school year virtually, a decision that left parents and students sharply divided.
Several parents spoke publicly at the meeting urging the board to reopen schools including former WSD School Board Member Mary Thao, who described struggles her own son is having in a virtual learning environment. Thao said some children, especially those with special needs, are being left behind in the learning process.
“This is not working,” Thao said.
Another parent said her son, who also has special needs, has been so distraught he considered suicide.
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After in-person comment concluded School Board President Tricia Zunker read into the record well over 100 emails received about the issue with strong opinions on both sides. All emails received will be posted online after personal information is redacted, though Zunker said emails that included screen shots of comments made by some board members on social media, citing individual First Amendment rights. The full public comment portion of the meeting lasted more than an hour.
Several board members and parents said they are concerned that students who live in abusive homes are falling through the cracks without the daily oversight of teachers and other school officials. Angela Lloyd, director of pupil services, said teachers are using a form to report when they have had no contact with a student for 24 hours. The form goes to pupil services, where staff reaches out to students and physically visits their home to ensure they are safe, Lloyd said.
Representatives from the Marathon County Health Department discussed the current state of COVID-19 infections in the area and said activity levels remain high. Health officials also talked board members through the process of contact tracing and “honor system” quarantine procedures when a positive result is recorded. School officials also considered data from other school districts that included infection and quarantine rates, though some districts have declined to provide quarantine numbers.
The WSD reported four positive COVID-19 infections as of last week, though more than a dozen athletes in volleyball and cross country are under quarantine.
Wausau School District Superintendent Keith Hilts said school officials will send a survey to parents and teachers to gauge opinion and determine how many students would come back to school if the board votes to shift to in-person or blended learning.
A final decision, based on a second review of pertinent data, will be made at a Sept. 28 committee meeting. That meeting is also the annual meeting of the School Board, and will be held at the Wausau West auditorium to accommodate an expected large crowd with social distancing.