By Shereen Siewert

Enrollment for summer school jumped by 170 students after the Wausau School District shifted to a “masks optional” policy, officials said this week.

Wausau School District Administrator Keith Hilts said enrollment numbers for summer school change daily, but far more students enrolled after the change.

The mask policy changed May 10, ending the mandatory requirement at the end of the school year for indoor activities and immediately for outdoor events. During a Wausau School Board meeting that evening, Hilts cautioned against changing the policy to mask-optional before summer school launched, sharing concerns that parents who signed up to send their children to summer programs with the mask policy in place could withdraw their children. But School Board President Pat McKee, who voted for the change, said some parents chose not to send their children to summer school because of the mask policy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidance advises that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in most cases. But COVID vaccine rates for children are still low and only one vaccine, from Pfizer, has been authorized for emergency use in children age 12 and older. While young people have a much lower risk of severe Covid-19 than older adults, they can, in some cases, become very ill, and 308 children have died. As of May 13, more than 3.9 million cases of the illness had been reported among children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. That represents about 14 percent of all Covid-19 cases in the U.S.

McKee said he is pleased with the summer school enrollment trend.

“COVID introduced significant challenges to the educational process,” McKee said. “Summer school is one of the most effective tools we have available to help minimize the long-term impact.”

Data show virtual learning has had a devastating impact on some students, widening the achievement gap and resulting in a drop in secondary student performance.

In January, Dr. Jennifer Rauscher, director of secondary education for the district, shared data that show students with “F” grades jumped dramatically in the fall semester compared to 2019. The number of middle school students who received an “F” more than quadrupled since the year before. What’s more, high school student failing grades also nearly doubled, with 623 students receiving an F compared to 320 in 2019. Grade point averages also dropped, though not as precipitously, Rauscher said.

The numbers improved from first quarter to second quarter, after students had a choice to come back to school.

McKee said he is optimistic about summer school as a tool to help struggling students regain their footing and achieve success moving forward.

“Our district is fortunate to have dedicated and effective staff to coordinate and deliver our summer school programs,” McKee said.