By Shereen Siewert

Students in the Wausau School District could be back in school within weeks, with staff aiming for a Nov. 2 start date.

During a special meeting Monday at Wausau West High School, members of the Wausau School Board approved a new plan that would bring elementary school students back to the classroom, while implementing a blended approach for secondary schools.

Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker joined Pat McKee, Lance Trollop, James Bouche and Lee Webster in voting to approve the plan as recommended by school administration. Beth Martin, Ka Lo and Jane Rusch voted against the proposal.

In July, Wausau School Board members voted 6-3 to begin the semester virtually, a decision that prompted a strong reaction from members of the public and hundreds of students to transfer to other neighboring districts. School officials say 433 students have transferred out of the district.

“Parents are voting with their feet,” school officials said, in meeting materials presented Monday.

Wausau, the largest community in Marathon County, is the only school district to begin school in a fully virtual manner this fall.

Some parents who commented publicly at Monday’s meeting pointed to technical glitches and challenges that have made virtual learning challenging and frustrating, from difficulties connecting to freeze-ups on district-issued Chromebooks.

Amanda Witz, a Wausau parent who commented at Monday’s meeting, said she is struggling to help her daughter understand lessons while juggling a heavy workload.

“I am sick and tired of having to work 16-hour shifts, come home, and be up until 2 o’clock in the morning with my daughter, who is so behind because she cannot understand any of the virtual learning that you guys provided,” Wiitz said. “I used to work for you guys. I know how you work. You don’t think about the safety or the children’s education. All you think about is yourself and it’s time we put an end to it.”

Amanda Witz, of Wausau, speaking Sept. 28, 2020 at a Wausau School Board meeting. Photo: Wausau Area Access Media screenshot

Public comment lasted the entire hour set aside for the meeting, which then re-convened after the Wausau School Board annual meeting.

In making their decision Monday, board members also relied on information presented by the Marathon County Health Department that showed Marathon County is experiencing high COVID-19 activity, with a record number of new cases reported over the weekend and 476 current active cases. Health officials also said nine school systems have positive cases with 36 total cases in Marathon County Schools, resulting in 456 people under quarantine because of an exposure at school – 10 percent of new cases county-wide.

In addition to high activity levels, Marathon County is experiencing strained testing capabilities and poor contact tracing, officials said.

Amanda Ostrowski, certified health specialist with the Marathon County Health Department, said while children may be less likely to experience serious symptoms, health officials are concerned that children with few or no symptoms could infect others in the community who are at higher risk.

Health officials are finding that people who are infected now have many more close contacts than patients who were infected in June or July, Ostrowski said, complicating tracing efforts and increasing the risk of disease transmission.

“As much as we all want to act in a normal manner, we all have to remember that we can’t do that yet,” Ostrowski said.

Surveys sent this month by the district show staff members split regarding a return to in-person learning. Of those surveyed 450 staffers preferred the fully virtual option, with 326 saying they preferred a full return to in-person classes. An additional 119 staff members said their first option would be Plan B, bringing students back on alternating weeks. Elementary staff were more likely to prefer a full return to the classroom.

Surveys were also sent to families, 3,304 of which responded. Of those, 72.8 percent said they would send their children back to the classroom for a full return to in-person learning, while 25 percent said they would keep their children home and choose virtual education.

Wausau School Superintendent Keith Hilts said he concluded, after reviewing data and speaking with health officials, that sending students to school can be safe if proper mitigation strategies are used.

Under the new plan, elementary school students will return to school and will be taught in cohorts, keeping 6 feet distance from one another. Separate staff will be identified to teach students whose parents opt for the virtual option.

Secondary schools will return to school split into two alternating cohorts divided alphabetically, A-L and M-Z. Teachers will focus live instruction primarily on in-person students, though details about virtual and quarantined students are yet to be finalized. Teachers will use a “flipped lesson format” – a blended learning model in which traditional ideas about classroom activities and homework are reversed, or “flipped.” In this model, instructors have students interact with new material for homework first.

Mask use will be mandatory and will be enforced, Hilts said.

Parents will be contacted to determine final numbers and solidify plans based on their choices. Virtual learning will continue to be an option for all.

Administration will now move forward with the plan and will update the board on Oct. 12.