Damakant Jayshi

On Tuesday, the Wausau School District reiterated its Covid-19 mitigation strategies, trying to reassure worried families about the safety of students who are back in school. The new academic year began on Wednesday.

Unlike some school districts in states outside Wisconsin, COVID-19 vaccines are optional for teachers in Wausau schools. Like indoor masking, vaccines are optional and cannot be enforced. That alarms some parents who believe students are at risk, especially children younger than 12 who are not eligible for vaccines.

“As of this time, vaccines are optional, so we don’t know how many are or are not vaccinated,” Diana White, Coordinator of Communications & Marketing at WSD told Wausau Pilot & Review. “As of this time, there are no plans to change that.”

Unless the Wausau School Board opts to mandate vaccines for teachers and staff, district officials say they can neither enforce it nor subject teachers and staff to testing.  

Faced with a barrage of questions from parents and the press, the Wausau School District on Tuesday issued a statement outlining current Covid-19 mitigation strategies.

“The Wausau School District is currently engaged in virus mitigation strategies,” the WSD statement said. It pointed out that the district has “upgraded its air filtration to include MERV-13 filtration throughout the District.”

The current mask-optional policy has polarized parents, teachers and students. Some praise the decision to support personal choice, though officials have been criticized by a number of parents through letters, social media posts and during Board meetings. Critics say the district is failing to adequately respond to the threat of Covid-19 and its variant, Delta, that is now rapidly surging across the country. The WSD, like some neighboring districts, has also come under fire for ignoring guidance from multiple health agencies that have recommended universal indoor masking, regardless of vaccine status.

“We understand Covid-19 and, specifically, masking policies are polarizing topics all around the world and it’s no different in the Wausau community,” the statement said. “Public health is a whole community effort.”

In the public statement, school officials reiterated that their “masking practices may also be reviewed by our Board of Education.”

In Appleton and Green Bay, school boards unanimously reversed prior protocols and will require masks for all students and staff, even if they’re vaccinated. Kimberly, Neenah, Manitowoc and Oshkosh schools have done the same, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

School officials also said they will provide free Covid-19 testing “to students presenting Covid symptoms” with parental permission. White said testing will be performed in partnership with the state’s Department of Health Services (DHS). “However, it’s important to note we will only test symptomatic students and only if we have parental consent – it will not be done at random,” White added.

School officials say the Marathon County Health Department will notify the district of any positive cases and will also determine which people are close contacts and who needs to be quarantined and for what period of time. But local health officials have struggled with contact tracing since the pandemic began, citing a lack of manpower – and, on Aug. 12, the county’s health department said it was unable to conduct contact tracing in a timely manner.

But school officials still say they will notify parents of cases in elementary classrooms. Families of secondary students are encouraged to use the district dashboard. Quarantines will be enforced by ensuring identified positive cases and close contacts stay out of buildings until quarantines are over, White said.

The WSD statement, while acknowledging a petition that has now collected nearly 950 signatures calling for universal masking in schools, also questions the authenticity of the signatures on the document.

“While we respect peoples’ opinions, petitions are only one piece of information,” district officials said. “We are unable to vet the source of signatures as to whether they are even our own residents. Further, we suspect, based on data last year, that if asked, a large majority of residents would support our staff’s and parents’ right to choose.”

A number of parents, with active support from some WSD Board members, have opposed universal masking. About 8,000 students have enrolled in WSD for the 2021-22 academic year.

Mary Hoefs, who initiated the petition, challenged the authorities on the signatures.

“You did not make an attempt to get the signatures and addresses of those who signed,” she wrote to district officials, in an email shared with media outlets. “This will be represented at the next school board meeting with the additional signatures/progress. I am trusting that you will in fact VET each Signature.” 

Read the full WSD statement 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.