Damakant Jayshi

Wausau and D.C. Everest are among several area school districts that must now weigh potential legal and financial consequences based on COVID-19 mitigation strategies, some of which are creating sharp controversy among parents, teachers, educators and members of the community.

Two weeks ago the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) warned districts without mask requirements they could violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act with regard to students with and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) – leaving them open to lawsuits seen in other states. The Wausau School District has 1,212 students in that category, D.C. Everest has 705, Mosinee has 323 and Stevens Point has 1,064 such students. Of these, only Stevens Point (along with Marshfield and Wisconsin Rapids) have mandated masks in schools.

Now, insurance providers are saying districts could lose crucial insurance if they don’t change their policies. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB) warned the board that the immunity law might not come to their rescue: This immunity does not apply if an act or omission involves reckless or wanton conduct or intentional misconduct (emphasis added by WASB.)

“We are working with the local (Marathon County) Health Department on this important aspect to ensure we are moving in the right direction,” Jeff Lindell, Director of Student Services at D.C. Everest School, told Wausau Pilot & Review.

Lindell pointed to the “struggle of all schools” when determining mitigation strategies, “since not everyone agrees with schools wherever we land.”

Local heath officials say they are struggling to keep up with contact tracing. The Marathon County Heath Department last week advised members of the community to adopt safety protocols without waiting for notification.

MCHD spokesman Aaron Ruff disputed the Wausau School District’s repeated assertions that the Health Department would “implement quarantines and begin contact tracing” when necessary.

“The Marathon County Health Department cannot ‘implement’ isolation or quarantine for individuals,” Ruff told Wausau Pilot & Review.

Health officials are in constant close contact with school district administrations, Ruff said.

Pat McKee, president of the Wausau School Board, did not respond to questions regarding the risks of lawsuits.

At the Mosinee School District, Kevin Hermening, the district Board president, pointed to what he views as a constitutional issue with with mask mandates. Mosinee Superintendent David Munoz shares Hermening’s views.

“I 100% agree with Kevin Hermening’s comments and positions in (sic) regards to governance, the Constitution, and the local control of school districts,” Munoz wrote.

But legal experts widely agree that mandates have a long history of being upheld in the court system.

“We voted at our May meeting to end all Covid protocols in the Mosinee School District, and we continued our 2020-2021 ‘mask optional policy’ for all students and staff for summer school and the current school year,” Hermening wrote.

Hermining also pushed back against publicly displaying or releasing Covid-related information and said the decision was one made by the school board.

“…in light of the fact that we never promote how many students or staff are ill with the flu, out with an abscessed tooth, a pregnancy, or any other medical condition, we should not be making this data publicly available,” Hermening wrote.

At the Wausau School District, there is confusion over how items are placed on the school board’s agenda and who is responsible for setting the agenda. Some parents, teachers and members of the community have requested the district add COVID-19 protocols to the Sept. 13 board meeting agenda but have been denied.

McKee, in an email responding to such a request, indicated that Superintendent Keith W. Hilts would provide updates – and possibly request action – on the items COVID-19 protocols at the Board’s Education/Operations meeting on Sept. 27.

“Should there be a need to take action sooner, a special meeting can be set,” McKee wrote to parents. “Dr. Hilts is working with Dr. (Kristine) Gilmore from the D.C. Everest school district to ensure both districts are aligned as we collectively serve the larger community.”

Some parents are calling for a Wausau School Board recall, but Wisconsin law doesn’t allow recalls of elected officials until after a year has passed since the beginning of their term.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the weekly Covid-19 related hospitalizations for 0-17 years increased nearly five-fold between late-June to mid-August.

The policy on masking has divided many local communities, mirroring the divide across the nation.

Polls show a split nation when it comes to masking. Gallup’s latest polling finds that parents of K-12 students tilt more toward requiring masks than not, but the level of support for universal mask mandates for students, teachers and staff is not a clear majority.

The divide over masking appears largely along partisan lines.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that “more than six in ten (63%) of all parents of children who attend school think their child’s school should require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks at school, although most parents who self-identify as Republicans (69%) oppose such a requirement. Parents of unvaccinated children are evenly divided.

However, the KFF poll also found that a majority (58%) of parents of 12-17 year-old children said their child’s school should not require students to be vaccinated for COVID-19, and a similar share (54%) of parents of all school-age children say schools should not require vaccination even once the FDA has fully approved the use of a COVID-19 vaccine in children. Majorities of Democrats and parents of children who are already vaccinated support schools requiring vaccinations in both scenarios, while majorities of Republican parents and those whose children are unvaccinated are opposed.

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services is cautioning residents about the increase in the number of hospital and ICU beds in use.

Although vaccines have more widespread support (76% of adults have taken at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine), people in some pockets of the country have refused to do so. The most recent data show unvaccinated people are 11 times more likely to die of COVID-19.

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.