Damakant Jayshi

A petition challenging Wausau School District’s current “mask-optional” policy has gained over 300 signatures as of press time Thursday.

The petition, initiated on Tuesday by one Mary Hoefs from Abbotsford, WI, accuses WSD of failing to provide safety to Wausau students and staff. It points out the current situation of the Marathon County which is under “high level of transmission” category.

“Despite this highly contagious variant and the nearly 700,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19, the Wausau School Board has decided there will be no required masking, no social distancing and no quarantining of close contacts for this school year,” the petition reads. “Critically, children are contracting the Delta variant and ending up in intensive care, and even on ventilators, in some states. Children under 12 cannot get vaccinated (grades 4K through many 6th graders). They have no protections in the school environment unless mitigation strategies are put in place.”

People who signed the petition challenging the WSD optional masking policy expressed fears about the impact of the decision on the health and safety of children and staff and many pointed out that trying to keep them safe was not political. Masking has been made controversial by conspiracy theorists on right-wing and social media despite scientific evidence they help prevent the transmissions of viruses.

Responding to the petition, WSD Board President Pat McKee told a news station the Board was trying to make the best decision with the options they have.

“These are very tough decisions.” McKee said, “There are viewpoints across the board and at the end of the day, none of the viewpoints are wrong.”

On Monday, the WSD Board, over the objection of at least two Board members, took no action on changing its mask and social distancing policy inside school building, effectively giving continuity to the current – optional – masking policy. Social distancing will not be practiced, either. The Board and school administration’s view is to revisit the issue in the future if the situation required.

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.

The WSD Board took another decision on the recommendation of school district administration: It unanimously decided to discontinue contact tracing responsibilities by school staff.

What could compound the matter is Marathon County Health Department’s inability to conduct contact tracing in a timely manner.

“Marathon County Health Department’s contact tracing team is no longer able to contact Covid-19 cases in a timely manner, nor have timely follow up with each close contact,” said a statement issued on Thursday. This department acknowledged that the county “is experiencing a significant increase of Covid-19 cases.”

The department also said it was hiring additional contact tracers and hiring staff.

“Despite this highly contagious variant and the nearly 700,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19, the Wausau School Board has decided there will be no required masking, no social distancing and no quarantining of close contacts for this school year,” the petition reads. “Critically, children are contracting the Delta variant and ending up in intensive care, and even on ventilators, in some states. Children under 12 cannot get vaccinated (grades 4K through many 6th graders). They have no protections in the school environment unless mitigation strategies are put in place.”

People who signed the petition challenging the WSD optional masking policy expressed fears about the impact of the decision on the health and safety of children and staff and many pointed out that trying to keep them safe was not a political move in any way. Masking has been controversial, despite mounting scientific evidence that they help prevent the transmissions of viruses.

Responding to the petition, WSD Board President Pat McKee told a local news station the Board was trying to make the best decision with the options they have.

“These are very tough decisions.” McKee said, “There are viewpoints across the board and at the end of the day, none of the viewpoints are wrong.”

On Monday, the Wausau School Board, over the objection of at least two members, took no action on changing its mask and social distancing policy inside school building, effectively giving continuity to the current – optional – masking policy. Social distancing will not be practiced, either. The board and school administration’s view is to revisit the issue in the future if the situation required.

The 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 recommend indoor masking in school, regardless of vaccination status. Most board members and administrators attended the meeting without donning masks themselves.

The WSD Board took another decision on the recommendation of school district administration by unanimously voting to discontinue contact tracing responsibilities by school staff.

What could add to the complexity of the situation is the Marathon County Health Department’s inability to conduct contact tracing in a timely manner.

“Marathon County Health Department’s contact tracing team is no longer able to contact Covid-19 cases in a timely manner, nor have timely follow up with each close contact,” the department said a statement issued on Thursday. This department acknowledged that the county “is experiencing a significant increase of Covid-19 cases.”

The department also said it was hiring additional contact tracers and hiring staff.

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.