Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Stettin student was not staying with her mother when she was sent to school with COVID symptoms.

Damakant Jayshi

The mother of a fourth-grade student at Stettin Elementary School in Wausau said her daughter was showing coronavirus symptoms when she attended an all-school assembly, two days before testing positive for COVID-19, prompting new concerns about protocols in the new school year.

The student’s mother said that the school had hundreds of unvaccinated, unmasked children in a non-socially distanced all-school assembly on Wednesday, when her child was “absolutely infectious.” The student lives with her father.

“My ex-husband notified the school as soon as she had a positive test, but she’d been symptomatic since Wednesday and was certainly infectious since the first day of school,” wrote the girl’s mother, whose name Wausau Pilot & Review is not releasing to protect the identity of the student.

She also said since school officials did not notify students in other grades at the school, she wanted other parents to know about the exposure and “make an informed decision regarding whether or not to test or maybe stay home and not spread the exposure to other family members.”

Confirming the positive case, Wausau School District (WSD) offiicals said the all-school assembly on Wednesday was only for 10 minutes.

“All students sat with their class,” Diana White, Coordinator of Communications and Marketing at WSD, told Wausau Pilot & Review. “At no time, were they within 6 feet of another class.”

White declined to confirm whether the student attended the assembly, explaining that the district’s policy of protecting the identity of students and staff prohibited them from releasing information that would identify who is Covid positive.

White also said school officials immediately notified the students and staff in that class. “Taking it a step further, we also notified all students and staff in that grade level, too,” said White. “We also notified the Marathon County Health Department right away so they could implement quarantines and begin contact tracing.”

The Stettin infection comes at a time when the WSD Covid-19 Dashboard shows there have been at least 19 positive cases for Covid-19 including both students and staff and 116 people quarantined, as of Tuesday, Sept. 7. The new academic year began on Sept. 1.

By contrast, Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids – two school districts that require mandatory masking – have had 20 and five confirmed cases, respectively. Stevens Point’s data is from Aug. 1 to Sept. 7. The Stevens Point Area Public School District contains 18 schools and 7,144 students, while Wausau encompasses 21 schools and 8,149 students.

At Wisconsin Rapids, no COVID-19 positive cases have been reported.

WSD has continued with its optional mask policy and despite requests from parents and families and recommendation by public health agencies to require universal indoor mask or face coverings in schools. Some WSD Board members are actively working against universal indoor masking despite mounting evidence that masks help to prevent Covid-19 infections.

Experts says masks work and recommend wearing them, especially indoors.

“What we really were able to achieve is to demonstrate that masks are effective against Covid-19, even under a rigorous and systematic evaluation that was done in the throes of the pandemic,” said Dr. Ashley Styczynski, in a Sept. 3 report that outlined a large case study. “And so, I think people who have been holding out on wearing masks because [they] felt like there wasn’t enough evidence for it, we’re hoping this will really help bridge that gap for them.” The report does note that surgical masks are more effective than cloth masks in preventing the spread of disease.

The controversy over appropriate health protocols in schools is fierce, with passionate opinions on both sides of the debate. But the Wisconsin Department of Instruction last week sent out a letter to schools warning them that they could face potential legal action if masks are not required.

A teacher at the WSD said some parents participating in a closed Facebook page are threatening to withdraw their children if the district enforces indoor masking, complicating the decision for administrators. The teacher, whose name is being withheld out of fear of backlash from her employer, said she believes the decision boils down to money.

“The enrollment counts on the third Friday in September are extremely important in determining aid to districts,” she said. “Thus, I’m guessing that’s the greatest factor.” 

See the Wausau School District COVID-19 dashboard 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.