Damakant Jayshi

‘Start like a normal school year now and add restrictions later if cases of Covid-19 rise, or adopt suggested safety measures now and loosen up later?’ This question attracted robust discussion from Wausau School District Board members and administration officials on Monday during a meeting that addressed back-to-school planning, among other topics. 

By not taking up a motion on masking and social distancing, the Board effectively has given continuity to the current – optional – masking policy.

In doing so, however, the Board and the WSD administration effectively ignored latest safety guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), Marathon County Health Department, Wisconsin Depart of Public Instruction and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) – all of which have recommended indoor masking in school, regardless of vaccination status. Most Board members and school WSD administrators attended the meeting without masks, despite the most recent CDC guidance against doing so indoors.

On the recommendation of WSD Superintendent Keith Hilts, the Board unanimously approved discontinuing contact tracing responsibilities by school staff. Hilts said that action should be handled by the county health department. The school superintendent also said he would like to start the school year in a normal way.

A request by school officials to make independent decisions on COVID-19 mitigation strategies was also denied. Some board members suggested administration officials already have the tools and authority to do so. 

The inaction did not sit well with some Board members.

“How I see what happened was that a decision was made between two or three members in the meeting that the administration is already doing what the motions were suggesting and so we didn’t need to vote,” Board member Ka Lo, who supports the DPI recommendations, told Wausau Pilot & Review.

She added that by not following through on masking recommendations, the Board defied public health institutions on reducing the risk of Covid-19. 

All three people who spoke at the start of the WSD Board meeting – including two physicians – and the four written responses submitted as part of the public comment portion of the meeting spoke in favor of universal masking. Each expressed the concerns about the Delta variant now surging across the country, state and the county. Cases of children contracting Covid-19 are on the rise as well, representing 15% of all new infections, according to federal data. 

Dr. Kay Gruling, a former Wausau School Board candidate who spoke in favor of universal masking, said she has had Covid-19 and suffers from “long Covid.” Gruling said the Delta variant will send many, including children, to hospitals and cause long-term problems. “So, it is really irresponsible, especially when we know the science, to say we don’t need to mask, we don’t need to take precautions,” Gruling said. 

Board member Jane Rusch, who pushed for adopting CDC guidance on masking, said masks are required more to protect others than self. Rusch also said that much of the email communication that came to the Board surrounding the issue dealt with misinformation and disinformation, or were emotional and political, “but they didn’t deal with the fact and the pandemic we are currently in.”

Board President  Pat McKee objected to Rusch’s characterization and drew some applause when he said his understanding of the emails was that a vast majority of more parents were saying ‘let me decide on how I prevent or not prevent’ their children from getting sick.

Lo referred to a recent DPI recommendation on masking when making her point. “The DPI recommends to school districts that all students older than 2 years and all school staff wear face masks at school (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use) regardless of vaccination status,” the DPI said on August 4. “This is in alignment with the AAP, CDC, and DHS guidance for schools.” 

McKee referred questions about why the board is ignoring guidance on indoor masking from health agencies, DPI and AAP to the school superintendent and his team.

WSD’s Coordinator of Communications and Marketing, Diana White responded on behalf of  the Wausau School District and said the WSD “respects and strongly considers all recommendations from our public health institutions.”.

“However, as they focus solely on public health, public school districts are also dedicated to providing the highest quality educational experience possible,” White’s email read. “High quality educational experiences include students engaging in collaborative discussions and problem solving. Students must engage in communication with their teacher and peers. Last year, despite heroic and creative efforts from teachers and other school staff, students missed out on much of these quality experiences and we want to do all we can to ensure that does not happen again. Further, when we moved beyond public health recommendations last year, we did not see an increase in virus transmission.  Based on our dedication to our district mission and past experience we feel the prudent action at this time is to offer education with optional masking.”

White has so far not clarified whether the district is implying that masking interfered with “collaborative discussions” or in “communication with their teacher and peers.” 

Unclear is  whether the WSD Board’s and the administration’s inaction was guided by the fear of losing students. Board member Jon Creisher, who said he wouldn’t support universal masking, pointed to the hundreds of students who left the district last year after the board opted to begin the fall semester virtually. 

Last year, more than 400 students left the school district after the decision was made. WSD’s White pointed out that the District has seen declining enrollments over the last several years and enrollment across the entire state was down 3%. 

“That said we have no way of knowing if those who left the District or open enrolled elsewhere was tied to masking,” she said. 

Children younger than 12 are still not eligible for COVID vaccines and health experts have expressed concerns that without at least universal indoor masking, they are under greater risk. Mask requirements, like vaccines, have met with stiff resistance from many people across the country, saying they are not effective and even potentially  dangerous to health. Other health experts have challenged that assertion and blamed those theories on disinformation from far right-wing media groups and social media outlets.

During the discussion, WSD Board Treasurer Lance Trollop said universal masking would be effective, but it does not exist at this point. “It is a community issue, and not a school issue, so I don’t think we will see much difference,” Trollop, a past board chair, said Monday. “The people that don’t believe in masks, they’re not going to protect themselves; they are going to interact the same (way) as they did before and they are going to do that whether we have a mask requirement in the school buildings or not.”

On Monday, the DPI again recommended that schools follow updated Covid-19 guidance in buildings, which includes “mask wearing, physical distancing, and increased mitigation efforts.”

“To ensure our schools stay open to in-person instruction, it is essential districts do everything they can to keep kids, staff, and families safe,” State Superintendent Jill Underly said. 

The CDC has recommended universal indoor masking for teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of their vaccination status. The agency also recommended that fully vaccinated people wear a mask regardless of the level of transmission, particularly if they are immunocompromised or at an increased risk of diseases or not fully vaccinated. 

To watch the video of the meeting, click here.

Damakant Jayshi is a reporter for Wausau Pilot & Review. He is also a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of GroundTruth Project that places journalists into local newsrooms. Reach him at damakant@wausaupilotandreview.com.