Damakant Jayshi

As a petition challenging the Wausau School District’s optional indoor mask policy for fall gains traction, school officials remain silent on some of the questions the document poses.

The petition now has nearly 600 signatures.

“I have two grandchildren going to school in Wausau,” Mary Hoefs, who initiated the petition about a week ago, told Wausau Pilot & Review. “I am worried about their health since the children are not eligible for the vaccine and their mother is immunocompromised.” 

Hoefs lives in Abbotsford ,which is outside the WSD zoning map. Children younger than 12 are not yet eligible for vaccines, putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus.

Like some other parents, Hoefs is also concerned that the Delta variant of COVID-19 will not stay limited to one area or district. The Wausau School District is the 13th largest in the state.

“That is why I am shocked that the WSD Board did not issue a mandatory indoor masking policy,” she said.

The petition has generated hundreds of comments both on and off of social media from parents, grandparents, educators and residents.

“As a former school social worker in the Wausau School District, I am still deeply committed to the well being of students, staff and families,” wrote Lisa Ort-Sondergard. “This is an outrageous, completely reckless decision made by this board, who clearly are not willing to follow the science.”

Wausau Pilot & Review reached out to Superintendent Keith W. Hilts but has not yet received a response.

The mask issue is a contentious one, with passionate opinions on both sides. Many parents who oppose mandatory face coverings question the effectiveness of masks and say they pose respiratory challenges for some students. Others are concerned that individual rights are being stripped from students and their families.

Hoefs previously initiated a “We Support Gov. Evers & A Safer Wisconsin During COVID-19 Pandemic” Facebook page, but she said that the page – which has over 21,000 members – is non-partisan. She insists the petition is not in any way political. 

“What will it take for the Wausau School District Board and the school administration to change their policy on masks?” Hoefs said. “How many students and teachers need to be sick or die before they decide to do something?”

Perusing the comments section of the petition, the fears and frustration of those who have signed on is evident.

“My daughter is not yet eligible for the vaccine. Please continue to mandate masks for all staff and students in all Wisconsin schools until vaccines for ages 11 and younger are available,” said Katie Joz.

“I am shocked by the school boards (sic) decision to ignore the recommendations of the entire health and scientific communities regarding masking in schools, especially as it pertains to children too young to be vaccinated,” said Roger Jolly, in his comments. “Everyone would prefer in school learning but if you don’t follow the guidance of experts, it’s just a matter of time before the number of children becoming infected will force a return to virtual learning.”

On Aug. 9, the Wausau School Board took no action on changing its mask and social distancing policy inside school buildings, effectively giving continuity to the current – optional – masking policy. Social distancing will not be practiced, either.

The CDC, Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), Marathon County Health Department, Wisconsin Depart of Public Instruction and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are all recommending indoor masking in school, regardless of vaccination status. 

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.