By Shereen Siewert

Members of the Wausau School Board will decide next month whether to bring middle and high school students back to the classroom four days per week, ending the alternate week-schedule currently in place.

The Wausau School Board’s Education and Operations Committee discussed the issue on Monday and voted 8-1 to move the discussion to the full board on Feb. 8. If approved, students would return to the classroom on March 1.

The decision will come on the heels of news this week that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials are now urging a return to the classroom as soon as possible, citing evidence showing in-person instruction is safe with the right health protocols. Researchers at the CDC, in the journal JAMA, pointed to a “preponderance of available evidence” suggests that in-person instruction can be carried out safely as long as mask-wearing and social distancing are vigorously maintained. Officials caution that local officials must also be willing to impose limits on settings such as indoor dining areas and poorly ventilated gyms to keep infection rates low throughout the community.

School board members came under heavy fire in July from some parents who opposed starting fall classes in a fully virtual format. The Wausau School District was the only district in central Wisconsin to make that decision, but did so amid concerns about community spread of COVID-19. In October, the board voted to reopen schools in November, with a alternate week schedule for secondary school students and in-person instruction for elementary schools.

Reaction from members of the public who spoke to the group Monday and educators at local schools has been decidedly mixed on the issue. John Masanz, of Wausau, who represents the 690 teachers in the Wisconsin Educators Association, urged the board to put safety of staff and students above politics and look to science in making future decisions. He also asked that all educators be vaccinated fully before being asked to return to a full, in-person experience.

“My guess is that minds have been made up in regard to that topic,” Masanz said. “I would simply implore you to put the safety of students of staff as a guiding light moving forward.”

Masanz pointed to Elmbrook Schools, which uses a rolling three-day average to determine if schools should close due to COVID, and suggested Wausau adopt a similar strategy.

“I wonder if we could consider such parameters,” he said. “It deals with safety, safety, safety.”

Jon Creisher, who has been a vocal advocate for in-person instruction and is a candidate for the board in 2021, strongly criticized past decisions by the board and its time spent on referendum information over the past year.

“I would ask that this district and board put in the same amount of work and show the same sense of urgency for what matters most,” Creisher said. “That being the students’ education and their overall health.”

Wausau School Superintendent Keith Hilts invited Dr. Jennifer Rauscher, director of secondary education for the district, to share information that shows secondary student achievement has dropped amid the current situation.

“We’re in a very difficult time,” Hilts said.

Rauscher shared data that show students with “F” grades jumped dramatically in the fall semester compared to last year. The number of middle school students who received an “F” more than quadrupled since last year. High school student numbers also nearly doubled, with 623 students with an “F” this semester compared to 320 last year. The numbers have improved from first quarter to second quarter, after students had a choice to come back to school. Grade point averages also dropped, though not as precipitously, Rauscher said.

The group also reviewed feedback from district staff members that showed many educators agreeing that student performance would be enhanced by in-person learning, but concerns remain about staff safety. Most staff prefer waiting until they are fully vaccinated before students return fully.

Wausau School Board Vice President Pat McKee speaks during a Jan. 25, 2021 meeting.

Board Vice President Pat McKee called the proposal well thought out and noted that a vote for the proposal does not disregard concerns for safety of staff.

“Just like a vote no on this proposal does not mean that someone doesn’t support the best interest of the children,” McKee said, thanking Hilts for what he described as a compromise proposal.

Other district officials around the state are having the same conversations, such as Oshkosh, Brown County and Ashwaubenon.

“We aren’t the only district that’s facing this,” said Wausau School Board President Tricia Zunker.

See the full video from the meeting below.