EAU CLAIRE — Ninety-one percent of Eau Claire school district teachers have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, improving on early predictions from the school district and reassuring administrators about shifting younger students to more face-to-face classes beginning this week.

“We’re happy to report that before spring break, 91% of staff reported having at least the first shot of the vaccine, so that helped us feel better about having more students in each classroom,” said Kim Koller, executive director of administration, at a Monday school board meeting.

In Eau Claire County, 35% of residents have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 24% are fully vaccinated.

Wisconsin teachers became eligible March 1 to get COVID-19 vaccines. Chippewa Valley teachers began getting their shots that same week.

In February, about 85% of the district’s roughly 1,400 employees said they were interested in getting the vaccine, Koller said.

No large school district in the Chippewa Valley is mandating employees get the vaccine, including the Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, Menomonie and Altoona districts.

More kids in classrooms

This week, Eau Claire kindergarten through fifth grade students are returning to face-to-face classes four days per week.

“To see art and music and physical education happening in person, and the staff with the enthusiasm and flexibility to make it happen … it really was quite a fun day to have 500 kids back in the building,” said Jake Donze, principal of Robbins Elementary School, at the Monday school board meeting.

The school board in February voted to allow kindergarten and third through fifth grade students to switch to four days of face-to-face classes per week instead of two, starting Monday. (First and second grade students have been in-classroom four days per week since the fall.)

On Wednesdays, all Eau Claire students learn virtually so school buildings can be cleaned.

On Monday, just over 4,500 students began to return to four days per week of in-person classes, Koller said. Eight students transitioned to Cohort H — the district’s option for younger students who were uncomfortable returning to four days per week of in-person classes. Those students will attend via a livestream of their classrooms during the day, school officials said in February.

Additionally, 128 students decided to switch from all-virtual classes to four days per week of face-to-face classes, Koller said.

The shift to more in-person classes means that in those elementary schools, teachers and students won’t necessarily be able to stay six feet apart inside school buildings.

The Eau Claire City-County Health Department in February said there was risk involved with the school district’s decision, but that the district’s plan took a “strategic and deliberate” look at the risks — adding that vaccinated teachers added a degree of protection.

Koller in February said the district weighed the risk along with additional COVID-19 health measures, and was confident in the move.

People inside school buildings are still required to wear masks.

Teachers on Monday said they were thrilled that music, art and physical education classes are being revitalized.

Some music, art and physical education classes are happening in classrooms; some are meeting in music rooms, gymnasiums, cafeterias or outside, said Denise Swartz, a music teacher at Locust Lane Elementary School.

As of Monday, the school district is only bringing back younger students for four days inside the classroom. School officials said in February that given the size of the high schools, without social distancing, Eau Claire high school students come into close contact with far more people each day — which would complicate contact tracing and quarantining if a COVID-19 outbreak happened in the high schools.

As of Monday, students in sixth through 12th grades are attending two days of face-to-face classes and three virtual days each week.

But via a letter sent before spring break, the school district told families that it’s “continuing to look at the secondary model for ways we can increase time face-to-face,” Koller said.

Zoe Wolfe, North High School’s student representative, said Monday that high school students would welcome more in-person classes.

“The 2021-22 school year should return to full in-person learning while also providing a virtual option as well,” Wolfe told the school board Monday. “For the majority of students, they need to be in school to receive a full education. Teachers have worked very hard this year to ensure we learn as much as we can.”

Also at the Monday school board meeting:

  • The board approved a 2021-22 master agreement between the Eau Claire Association of Educators and the school district, which includes a 1.23% base wage increase for the ECAE, according to meeting documents. The school board also approved a wage increase of 1.23% for all employees for the 2021-22 fiscal year.
  • The board will now allow student representatives to the board for all Eau Claire high schools, including the Eau Claire Virtual School and McKinley Charter School. Only Memorial and North high schools currently have student representatives on the board.
  • The board held a first reading of a new policy on coherent governance, a governing model that dictates how school boards function.
  • The board held a first reading of changes to the district’s policy on non-public school students participating in district courses and programs. Currently, a homeschooled or private school student can take up to two courses per semester if there is enough space in the classroom; the student must live in the Eau Claire school district. Students also currently must be full-time students to participate in extracurricular activities. If the school board votes later this month to change the policy, private school and homeschooled students will be able to take up to two high school courses per semester if they meet admission requirements and live in the district. They must also be taking no more than two courses in any public school in Wisconsin during any semester. Homeschooled students who live in the district could also participate in athletics and extracurriculars. Those students would also be responsible for their own transportation to and from the public school.
  • The board voted to remove the term “handicap” from several school district policies.
  • The school board met in closed session at 5:30 p.m. to discuss the superintendent’s evaluation.

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.