Editor’s note: This story has been amended to include additional comments by former WSD Board President Tricia Zunker. 

Damakant Jayshi

Two days before schools are set to open for the new academic year, the Wausau School District is moving ahead with its divergent policy regarding universal indoor masking in public places: optional in school buildings and mandatory on school buses.

Despite opposition from some WSD Board members, school administrators are moving ahead on mask requirements on buses, citing the order of the Transport Security Administration. The TSA has ordered mandatory masking on all public transportation, including school buses and on Aug. 20 extended the requirement through Jan. 18, 2022.

Meanwhile, the federal government on Monday announced investigations into five states that have banned mask requirements in schools.

Wausau School Board President Pat McKee did not respond to a request for comment on the bus masking policy. But school administration officials said masks are indeed required on school buses as per the TSA order.

“We will have signs on buses that masks are required on buses and we will also offer masks,” Robert Tess, Chief Finance and Business Services Officer, told Wausau Pilot & Review. Parents of the nearly 8,000 students enrolled for 2021-22 were notified by the bus transport company of the requirement.

Masks remain optional in Wausau school buildings. The decision was made Aug. 9 to continue “mask optional” for the 2021-2022 school year. Masks were mandatory through the 2020-2021 year but the policy changed before summer school classes began in June.

The Aug. 9 mask decision, which sets aside guidance and recommendations from federal, state and county health agencies, is not without its critics. At least two Board members favored following CDC recommendations and changing the policy for the new school year. During public comments at recent meetings, a majority of speakers urged the Board to require mandatory masking in school. School officials also discarded recommended social distancing measures in most situations. Masking on buses was not discussed during the same meeting.

The decisions regarding CDC guidance have so far been selective. While the WSD Board and administration disregarded CDC guidance on implementing indoor universal masking, they do point to CDC guidance on ‘Cleaning and Disinfection’ as a resource on their website. That CDC page also recommends “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”

WSD Communications and Marketing Coordinator Diana White referred Wausau Pilot & Review to past comments made by administrators on mask policy. Both the WSD administration and board have emphasized that they have taken mitigation strategies into consideration and will continue to monitor the situation.

If cases in school rise, they said, they would revisit the current policy.

“Students must engage in communication with their teacher and peers,” school officials said, on Aug. 10. “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.”

Children below 12 have not been approved for any Covid-19 vaccine at this time, a concern repeatedly pointed out by some parents, grandparents and other members of the community who are calling for indoor masking in school. During an Education/Operations meeting last week, a grandparent suggested that those parents who have problems with mask should keep their children virtual “so that other kids can be safe in school.”

Former WSD Board President, Tricia Zunker, pointed out that it was not a new requirement. “What is new, however, is the school district’s approach to masking in the buildings,” she told Wausau Pilot & Review.

Zunker, who had put her weight behind virtual classes last year citing the rising number of Covid-19 cases, criticized what she called the school authorities’ “disjointed approach” on masking. “This disjointed approach between district building policy and bus policy may cause confusion for some students and for families,” she said. “The district has a duty to communicate the federal law mask requirement clearly, timely and frequently and ensure its enforcement. It should not be left to the bus drivers to have to explain the policy.”

WSD is not alone in its optional mask policy. Mosinee, D.C. Everest, Rhinelander, Newman Catholic, Columbus Catholic (Marshfield), Merrill, Medford, and Antigo schools have so far opted for the same rule.

Conversely, three school districts – Marshfield, Stevens Point, and some Wisconsin Rapids classrooms will require masks. The Tomahawk School District earlier this month announced a mandatory masking policy but the school board there voted to rescind that decision just days later. Masks are now optional in Tomahawk schools.

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.