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A vial of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine is prepared at an Eau Claire vaccination clinic for front-line health care workers in January. Local school districts say they won't mandate the vaccine for their employees, though a majority of staffers have expressed interest in getting the shot.

EAU CLAIRE — Several large Chippewa Valley school districts don’t plan to require their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine once it’s available to teachers, which could be in early March.

The Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls and Menomonie school districts will not mandate the vaccine for employees, school officials told the Leader-Telegram Wednesday.

Wisconsin won’t broadly mandate the vaccine either. But private employers can determine whether they will require employees to get vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Even though getting the vaccine won’t be required, most school employees appear to be interested.

About 85% of Eau Claire school district employees expressed interest in getting the COVID-19 vaccine, said Kim Koller, the district’s executive director of administration.

In Chippewa Falls, it’s nearly the same: 83% of the school district’s staff say they want to get vaccinated, said Chippewa Falls schools Superintendent Jeff Holmes, who called the number “wonderful.”

That’s much higher than what one survey estimates is the general U.S. willingness to get the shot. A Gallup poll published in January found that 65% of Americans said they’d be willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19. (That percentage has varied in other studies. A Pew Research study in November found 60% of Americans would “definitely or probably” get a COVID-19 vaccine, and that number was at 71% in December according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.)

A month to plan

When March comes, school districts probably won’t be faced with vaccinating every single staff member in a very short time frame.

Roughly 175 Eau Claire school district employees who work in health care or medical support were able to get the vaccine in Phase 1A in January, Koller said.

The rest, about 1,250 eligible employees, will be able to get the vaccine whenever the state opens up vaccines to teachers.

“We will, as soon as we’re able, participate in the vaccination clinics that are offered to educators,” Koller said. “If that’s March, great, we’ll take advantage of that. If it happens earlier, that’s great as well.”

About 12% of Menomonie school district employees got access to the vaccine in Phase 1A, said Menomonie schools Superintendent Joe Zydowsky.

Wisconsin has said it will prioritize teachers ahead of the general population, and has put them in Phase 1B. Teachers and school staffers will tentatively be able to start getting the vaccine around March 1, state officials have said. They are in line after health care workers, first responders, law enforcement workers and people 65 and older.

But the group of people eligible starting March 1, which includes teachers, is about 600,000 Wisconsin residents strong. It also includes grocery store workers, food chain workers, some non-front-line health care workers and prisons. It will take the state weeks or months to vaccinate this group, state officials have cautioned.

Local superintendents said they’re disappointed the state hasn’t prioritized teachers earlier.

“Decisions from the state related to vaccine access should have better prioritized faculty and staff members providing in-person instruction in K-12 schools,” Zydowsky wrote in an email to the Leader-Telegram, calling the delay in access for teachers “extremely frustrating.”

“We were anticipating starting Phase 1B a bit sooner than March … yet we also realized the importance of supporting those 65 and older,” said Mike Johnson, Eau Claire schools superintendent, at a school board meeting on Monday.

The Eau Claire school district hasn’t decided if certain staffers will be prioritized when vaccines are available, for example, older staffers or those with serious underlying medical conditions, Koller said. The district is currently asking employees for feedback on the matter.

“We know, with the number of people that will be vaccinated in phase 1B, that it won’t all happen on a single day or even in a single week,” Koller said. “We’re going to have to have waves of employees go through.”

As it mulls rolling out the vaccine to its next 1,250 employees, the school district is also considering the vaccine’s potential side effects, Koller said.

“If you’re talking about a large staff and you have some percentage of employees out, that can impact programming,” Koller said.

Some people experience fever, chills, nausea or tiredness after getting the COVID-19 shot, which typically go away in a few days, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Those symptoms are not of COVID-19, but are a sign that the person’s body is building protection from the virus.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.