The anger over the decision to teach fall classes remotely was spelled in chalk on Beth Martin’s sidewalk.
“OPEN THE SCHOOLS BETH,” an irate parent scrawled in July after ringing the front doorbell and confronting Ms. Martin, a retired librarian of 30 years and member of the local school board.
“She didn’t swear at me, but she yelled,” Ms. Martin remembered. “I had to call the police.”
So began a semester that Ms. Martin described as a series of heated clashes and coronavirus-related quarantines in Wausau, a city of 38,000 people in central Wisconsin.
After starting classes virtually, the school board bowed to community pressure and voted to open schools to students in November — just as the pandemic was surging across Wisconsin. Hundreds of students would be exposed to the virus in the community and forced to stay home for two weeks, although a district spokeswoman said there were no staff or student deaths. A few staff members who were hospitalized later recovered.
As the board struggled with difficult decisions, members turned on one another in a bitter quarrel that frustrated parents, making it and the administration a lightning rod in the community.
Similar conflicts played out across the country, as school board members accustomed to hiring superintendents and approving annual budgets struggled with the demand that they become instant public health experts, balancing teacher concerns about safety with the educational needs of students and burdens on working parents.
Parents in California, Salt Lake City, suburban Philadelphia and elsewhere sued school boards and local health officials, arguing that their constitutional rights had been violated by the decision to keep classrooms closed. A superintendent in Arizona resigned after death threats were made to him and his family when he closed schools there in December.
The discord could leave many school leaders and their communities with the formidable task of rebuilding and repairing relationships — amid rifts that were previously unimaginable — after the pandemic recedes.
Wausau, a small city on the Wisconsin River known for its granite quarries and ski hills, was the rare district in the region to choose remote learning this fall, with the board following recommendations from the superintendent and teachers’ union, which said it was the safest option. District officials expected other systems would quickly follow suit as cases surged, but they did not.
“We were all of the opinion that within two to three weeks of opening, we were all going to be virtual anyway,” said Keith Hilts, the Wausau superintendent.
Before the vote, school board meetings in Wausau, a district of 8,000 students, were typically polite, lightly attended affairs. But the decision to teach remotely seemed to cleave the community in two.
A vocal contingent of parents urged the board to reconsider. Its president, Tricia Zunker, was harassed, including on Facebook, where someone wrote that perhaps her mask should be adjusted tightly enough to stop her from breathing.
April Van Rixel, 28, whose daughter is in third grade, was one of the parents who pushed for in-person classes. She started a Facebook page where like-minded parents could organize and was the mother who confronted Ms. Martin at her house in July.
“We all started to band together,” she said. “We saw the turmoil in our children. The social and academic damage has been immeasurable. Why was that not the priority?” (Ms. Van Rixel added that she “got a little crazy” at Ms. Martin’s house and would like to apologize to her eventually.)
For months, the decision from July held firm: Teachers came to school but taught virtually from their classrooms, and students learned from home, on their laptops.
But officials worried that many families were abandoning Wausau’s public schools. More than 430 students — just over 5 percent — left the district when the decision was made to teach remotely. Some families, like Ms. Van Rixel’s, enrolled in a different school district, an option granted under a school-choice policy in Wisconsin, or switched to private school. Others moved away.
In Wisconsin, where funding is tied to enrollment, the exodus raised alarms over the future of the district. At the same time, parents pointed out that the spread of the virus in Wausau was comparable to that of nearby communities where students were attending in person.
And there were early indications that academic performance was suffering: Unexcused absences went up, and grades went down. High school freshmen received 856 F’s in the first quarter, compared with 189 in the same period last year.
After months of debate, the board voted to open the schools for hybrid learning in early November, giving families the option for students to be taught in the classroom on certain days or virtually. Dr. Hilts, the superintendent, supported the switch, deciding that in-person learning was safe with the right precautions. He was also swayed by a survey showing that about 65 percent of families in Wausau wanted some opportunity for in-person learning.
The decision came at a critical moment: By fall, the coronavirus was surging in Wausau, which had among the highest per capita caseloads in the country. In early November, the Wausau area was averaging 145 new coronavirus infections each day, according to a New York Times tracking project.
“We were going back to school just as the pandemic was getting worse,” said Ms. Martin, the board member.
Safety precautions were instituted, including a mask mandate for everyone and limited movement for elementary school children, who spent most of their days this fall in one classroom, including for lunch, art, music and science.
“Like everybody else, I was anxious,” said John Masanz, a high school English teacher and the president of the Wausau teachers’ union, which opposed the return to in-person classes. “I have to listen to a lot of different factions. I also have a senior in high school living in my house, and I knew that getting back to face-to-face instruction was important. I’ll be honest with you, I was torn.”
Since in-person classes began, hundreds of students and staff members have toggled back and forth between the classroom and home, observing a two-week quarantine if they had potential exposure. District officials said they had no documented cases of at-school transmission, but on Jan. 12, nearly 200 students and staff were in quarantine.
“Our community is not stepping up,” said Ms. Martin, noting that virus transmission remains high in Wausau. “I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop where we say, ‘You know what, we have to go virtual again.’”
For teachers, anxiety is “through the roof,” Mr. Masanz said. And so is tension in the community, which in November voted down two referendums that would have raised $158 million for capital improvements and other costs to the school district.
“I hope that we can get past this divide and come back together as a community,” Mr. Masanz said. “And get back to education as normal.”