Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the original motion to approve the district administration’s guidelines was amended, twice. The story also has been updated to include the approved secondary school matrix model figures. 

Damakant Jayshi

The Wausau School District Board of Education on Monday approved a refined COVID-19 matrix model for secondary students while offering elementary school parents the choice of either a 10-day home quarantine or mandatory in-classroom masking if a positive case is detected in students or staff of that classroom.

The Board again rejected mandatory indoor masking for schools and also voted down two other items on the agenda – resuming contact tracing and quarantine coordination by school staff, and adding a virtual option for elementary school.

The measures approved Monday came after two and half hours of discussion.

Board Treasurer Lance Trollop sought common ground on what he deemed “reasonable” safety measures that were most likely to garner support by a majority of the Board members. He proposed approving the school administration’s guidelines with one change: when there is a positive case in a classroom at an elementary school, the students and staff of that classroom be masked (but only inside their class) for 10 calendar days, which is essentially the quarantine period. Later during the discussions, he also said this would encourage voluntarily quarantining students to attend school if their parents knew those exposed were wearing masks.

The Board approved Trollop’s motion with the masking requirement change but only after passing two amendments to it: Board member Karen Vandenberg’s amendment on increasing the secondary threshold matrix and President Pat McKee on not considering the community transmission level.

The approved secondary matrix now reads as: Level 1 (below 1.67%), Level 2 (1.67% – 3.33%), Level 3 (3.34% to 4.99%) and Level 4 (above 5%).

If the district reaches Level 4 (5% or more of unrelated cases), mitigation strategies include mandatory masking throughout each school for seven calendar days and maintaining 3 feet of distancing “to the best of our ability.”

During his presentation to board members Monday, WSD Superintendent Keith Hilts said the district would not recommend remote learning at secondary schools unless a recommendation came from the county health department. That recommendation, should it be put forward, would then have to be approved by the school board. But while the presentation mentioned remote learning for a week for elementary schools that individually reach Level 4, neither Hilts nor any Board member clarified whether this provision is still in the mix.

Trollop’s suggestion on requiring mandatory masking in an elementary classroom in case of a positive test generated some pushback from members on both sides of the indoor mask mandate debate. Ka Lo and Jane Rusch say they considered the proposal inadequate, and both favor mandatory indoor masking for the entire district. Creisher questioned the need for any masking at all and pointed to last year’s data, saying there were not many cases. But Trollop challenged that comparison, pointing out that last year the students and staff were required to put on masks and maintain social distancing.

“Those who are subject to a quarantine that we don’t enforce be masked (during the 10-day quarantine period),” said Trollop. “Yes, some parents would be upset with that…but it is important to remember in other districts these students are not even allowed in the buildings.”

The decision comes as infections and hospitalizations in children have increased throughout the state and the country.

During the debate, McKee pointed out that COVID-19 positive case rates in the district were similar to that of Marathon County and the WSD last week. He also noted that the district mirrored the COVID-19 spread of the county even last year and questioned why only the school district is expected to consider mandatory masking while the county itself does not.

McKee also shared his opinion that cases in schools would likely remain same as the county’s regardless of masking conditions. But experts have repeatedly said that masks help prevent the spread of the virus and have recommended indoor universal masking, regardless of vaccination status.

In response, Laura Scudiere, Marathon County Health Officer, said that age-related data showed “masking is effective in schools and that it would make a difference.”

“We can’t control what happens in the community but we can control (the spread) inside the community,” Scudiere said.

Scudiere also noted that a masking requirement was recommended by the county’s health department, state’s Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Health Services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics have made similar recommendations. Wausau has so far resisted such a requirement for the fall semester.

Masks have become controversial and polarizing throughout the country. A recent Fox News poll, however, showed support for masking (and vaccination) has increased. There is also widespread misinformation and disinformation that has muddied the waters for people searching for direction on these issues.

Earlier during the discussion, Board member Vandenberg said those who were insisting on masking for all because of fear of their children being infected in schools could enroll their students to WAVE, the virtual classroom.

But during a previous board meeting, a grandparent with children in the district made the counter argument: those opposed to indoor masking should keep their children in WAVE and allow masked children to attend school safely.

On contract tracing, Superintendent Hilts said district was unable to trace those deemed contacts of students and staff who tested positive for COVID-19 because of staff shortages. As for adding a virtual option for elementary school, he pointed out that WSD offers the WAVE option to all students in K-12 grades. Trollop also questioned the wisdom of adding a virtual option to elementary when WAVE offers that with teachers trained to teach virtual classes.

The Wausau School District outlines its mitigation policies on a COVID-19 dashboard, found here. But parents tell Wausau Pilot & Review that one stated policy appears incorrect.

“The Wausau School District is proud to offer free COVID-19 testing to students presenting COVID symptoms,” an Aug. 31 letter sent to parents reads. But some parents say their children have been turned away for testing and have been told tests are unavailable.

School administrators have not responded to a request for comment and clarification on the alleged discrepancy.

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.