Damakant Jayshi

Nine days before the new school year is set to begin, Wausau School District officials continued to face withering criticism over their current policy to ignore COVID-19 mitigation measures, including universal indoor masking, in schools this fall.

During a meeting of the WSD Board’s Education/Operations Committee on Monday, several speakers criticized the Board for not prioritizing COVID-19 safety.

Mary Hoefs, who initiated a petition asking WSD to require mandatory indoor masking in school in line with public health institutions’ recommendation on indoor masking, criticized the Board for not doing enough to protect the students and staff.

“Children are not eligible for vaccination,” Hoefs said. “Who will be responsible if there is death?”

Hoefs’ petition has gathered nearly 900 signatures in support of universal masking. She said she initiated the petition out of concern for two of her grandchildren who go to school in Wausau. Her grandson was sick with COVID last year.

Masks have been widely proven effective in preventing the spread of the virus and keeping people from contracting the virus. However, a lot of misinformation and disinformation, coupled with conspiracy theories against vaccines and masking, has made the task of implementing any kind of mask mandate difficult for school officials. Health agencies have recommended that children older than 2 should wear face coverings indoors to help prevent community spread of the virus.

With the school year about to begin, mitigation strategies have taken an urgency since vaccines are yet to be approved for those below 12 years of age. On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration gave its full approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The vaccine was under emergency use authorization until now.

Roger Jolly, whose 4-year-old granddaughter will be starting school this year, criticized the WSD’s continued defiance of guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, Marathon County Health Department, Wisconsin Depart of Public Instruction and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) – all of which recommend indoor masking in school, regardless of vaccination status. 

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.

“Instead of requiring masking – the most effective mitigation tool available – the Board has decided to first put the children at risk and then after enough children get sick or worse, revisit it,” Jolly said, adding that school officials appear not to take the Delta variant seriously. The Covid-19 variant is responsible for most new infections, hospitalizations and deaths across the country, including the rising number of sick children.

Jolly challenged an assertion at the last Board meeting (Aug. 9) that said masking choice should be made by parents and not school. “That is not true if that choice endangers the life and health of other children of parents who are following all the safety recommendations,” Jolly said.

Debra Krahn said the Board does not seem to grasp how bad the Covid-19 situation is. “To even think of opening school for children without masking is ludicrous,” Krahn said.

Krahn, who is from Tampa, Fla. but has three grandchildren in Wausau schools, criticized Board members for not wearing masks or maintaining six feet of distancing, requirements suggested by the CDC. Only Board members Jane Rusch and Ka Lo wore face coverings on Monday.

Rusch, who has been pushing for the school district to abide by CDC guidelines, also spoke during the public comments phase. She said she made three requests for the meeting – changing the venue of the meeting in light of the increasing number of Covid-19 cases, having a presentation about the virus and vaccines by local experts, and setting the criteria that would move the district to mandate masks or return to virtual education – and each request was denied.

“We owe it to our staff and families to know what would change their (school district’s) plans,” Rusch said. “They need to know what numbers must exist before the board acts. Is it a full ICU, a certain number of sick students or staff, does there have to be deaths? If so, how many?”

Rusch, who also asked for a special meeting before school starts on Sept. 1, was among the nine people who spoke during the public comments period of the meeting. Eight of the 9 speakers asked the Board to follow CDC guidelines.

However, Evan Pupp, a sophomore in Wausau school, said masking and keeping six feet part ruined his freshman year.

“Masks negatively impacted my school year physically and academically,” Pupp said. “I came home almost every day with a headache and twice with a migraine from breathing my own carbon dioxide for eight hours.”

He added he had been harassed for not wearing masks properly. 

Pupp also said he did not want the school or the Board to decide on masking as it was a decision that parents should be making.

“These masks are not the answer,” he said.

Lisa Ort Sondergard, a former social worker from the Wausau School District, said she understood how the pandemic has disrupted education but challenged the assertion that masks don’t work. Ort Sondergard said everyone has been impacted by pandemic socially, economically, emotionally and physically.

“So, to say our kids don’t need to wear masks, I don’t understand reasons for that,” she said.

Three others – Bruce Grau, Norah Brown and Sandra Flanagan – also spoke in favor of having universal indoor masking in school.

Mitigation measures, including masking, were not on the agenda for the meeting.

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.