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TUSD keeps COVID mask mandate through end of school year

Citing CDC recommendations for schools, officials with Tucson Unified School District said Tuesday they will maintain the district's COVID-19 mask mandate through the end of the school year, and may consider extending the requirement into next year. 

Last Thursday, the CDC revised its rules on masks, announcing that people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear a mask or physically distance themselves "in any setting." The announcement came with both sighs of relief, but also accusations that the CDC's recommendation was based on faulty science and calls for local governments to maintain mask mandates.

On Saturday, the CDC updated its recommendations for schools, and said that schools should "continue to use the COVID-19 prevention strategies" implemented last year, including the "universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing." While the CDC said that even fully vaccinated people should follow the rules set by federal, state, local and tribal governments, school officials had to consider whether to allow those who have received a full dose of vaccine to go into schools without masks. 

Adding to the debate over mask mandates, the CDC said Wednesday that children 12 to 15-year-olds could receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination, following a recommendation from the FDA to extend vaccinations younger than just those 16 and older. At least 600,000 kids in the U.S. ages 12 to 15 have received their first dose, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a press conference on Tuesday, and around 3.5 million people under 18 have been fully vaccinated. 

In Pima County, around 5,822 kids under 18 have been fully vaccinated, the CDC said. And, around 3,994 kids age 12 to 15 have received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, county officials said. Around 54,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been distributed to people under the age of 20 in Arizona, according to state figures. Around 41 percent of the total population has been vaccinated against COVID-19 in Arizona, the CDC said. 

However, kids under 12 have not been cleared for the vaccine, though younger age groups may be eligible for the vaccine in the fall pending the end of clinical trials. 

In an email, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo wrote that while the CDC and Pima County had lifted mask mandates for those fully vaccinated, neither provided "recommendations for school settings." 

"At this time the district does not have a way to determine the vaccination status of every student and employee in the district, in an abundance of caution, we will continue the district’s mandatory mask mandate for all students, employees, and visitors through the end of this school year," he said. 

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The district will consult with the Pima County Health Department, analyzing PCHD COVID 19 data for Pima County over the summer, Trujillo said, adding that TUSD was working with neighboring school districts to "review, assess, and decide whether or not the continuation of the current mandatory mask mandate" remains necessary through next year. 

Trujillo also said that for graduation events in a few weeks, those who are fully vaccinated can forego face-coverings, but anyone who is not should wear a mask while on campus. 

Up until April, like dozens of other school districts and charter schools in the state, TUSD's decision to require masks was backed by a mandate from Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who ordered mask mandates as one of several policies intended to "facilitate the safe return" to the classroom at the end of the summer. This was also buttressed by a November order from Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the state health department, that required wearing masks in schools. However, by April, Ducey rescinded his order, lifting both of the 2020 mandates. 

Ducey's announcement caught educators flat-footed, including the state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, who called the governor's decision "abrupt" and "destabilizing." 

Even after the mandates had been lifted, Pima County and district officials continued to recommend mask mandates, but last week citing the CDC's decision the county shifted its mask mandate to a recommendation, and the city of Tucson followed suit. 

Pima County officials also continue to recommend that children 12 to 15 get their vaccine, because while children "generally suffer milder illness from COVID-19 than adults, they may still suffer long-lasting, severe complications and even death if they do get the disease. Since there is no way to predict which children might become severely ill, getting vaccinated reduces their chances of serious complications." 

The county quoted two pediatricians from Johns Hopkins, who said that vaccinating children is "yet another step to getting the pandemic under control." 

Dr. Anna Sick-Samuels, M.D., M.P.H., of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, and Allison Messina, M.D., of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, wrote that children can "transmit the coronavirus to others if they’re infected, even when no symptoms are present." 

"Another reason to consider a COVID-19 vaccine for your child is to protect the health of the broader community," they wrote. "Each child or adult infected with the coronavirus provides a chance for the virus to mutate and create a variant that might prove more dangerous or resistant to the available vaccines and therapies. Fewer overall infections among the population means less chance of dangerous coronavirus variants." 

Meanwhile, the CDC's announcement last week that vaccinated people can go out without masks was criticized by the nation's largest union of nurses. National Nurses United said that while vaccines are "a very important element to reducing the spread of COVID-19" the U.S. cannot "rely on vaccines alone to stop transmission of COVID." 

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"It is clear that COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing severe COVID-19, hospitalizations, and deaths, but no vaccine is 100 percent effective and there are many unanswered questions about the COVID-19 vaccines, including how long protection will last, what protection against mild and asymptomatic cases looks like, and how effective vaccines will be against variants of concern that are or may become resistant to vaccines," the union said.

NNU also noted that around 37 percent of the U.S. population was vaccinated, and most estimates have put so-called "herd immunity" around 60 to 70 percent. 

"By exempting vaccinated individuals from wearing masks, the CDC has placed vulnerable people, including children, babies, and immunocompromised individuals, at higher risk for COVID-19," NNU wrote. "The scientific evidence clearly indicates a continued need to maintain mask requirements." 

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Volunteers at a FEMA-operated vaccination site in Pima County.

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