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The superintendent of Tucson's largest school district announced it will not be returning to in-person instruction at least through January.

In the meantime, as Pima County is poised to begin administering vaccines to group 1B—which includes teachers—as early as next week, Tucson Unified School District is gearing up to help vaccinate its staff.

The county will set up a “supersite model” of six or seven vaccination centers where all district employees can receive the vaccine, said TUSD Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo.

On Friday, Jan. 15, a registration website will be set up for employees to make an appointment to receive a vaccination at one of the vaccine sites and schedule an appointment for a second dose 28 days later, he said. He made clear, however, that no employee will be mandated to receive the vaccine.

“We believe that it's our responsibility to create the conditions, create the opportunities for employees who want to go get the vaccine of their own free will and their own accord,” Trujillo said. “We will be creating conditions internally that will make it as easy as possible for an employee to choose to go get the vaccine.”

Some TUSD employees have already been vaccinated in their capacity as nurses, health assistants, athletic trainers, occupational therapists, speech therapists and language therapists that qualified under group 1A of vaccine recipients.

However, Trujillo noted, many who didn’t qualify also received the vaccine.

Some TUSD employees who qualified for group 1A may have forwarded the link they used to register to “friends and colleagues that are not members of group 1A,” according to Trujillo.

“Because there was no, at the time, filter or control put in there by the Pima County Health Department, anybody who received that link was able to register and successfully sign up to get the vaccine,” he said. “You may see on social media, teachers and other members that are outside of group 1A making statements that they got the vaccine or they were able to register. That is true, and it's a result of having the registration link forwarded to them, probably by a colleague in group 1A.”

The superintendent said the health department has since resolved the problem.

No return date

As Pima County continues to be in a state of widespread transmission of COVID-19, Trujillo said he won’t propose a return date to the governing board until the benchmarks established by the Arizona Department of Health Services to reopen schools are in a state of “minimum or moderate transmission of the virus.”

ADHS makes its recommendation based on three key benchmarks: cases per 100,000 individuals, percent positivity and hospital visits for COVID-like illness.

In Pima County, ADHS data shows 7,580 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 of the population and an 11.4% positivity rate of coronavirus as of Jan. 8. The most recent data available on the state health department’s school benchmarks website shows hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses at 15.2% as of Dec. 20.

“We will, of course, re-examine things on a month-by-month basis. But for now, January is out, there is no imminent start date that I will be proposing to the governing board with regard to reopening our campuses for in-person instruction, either through the hybrid model, or just opening them back up again,” Trujillo said.

Even if the district wanted to reopen, Trujillo said TUSD doesn’t have adequate staff. Many employees have contracted COVID-19 and are in quarantine for up to 14 days.

“We feel that it's less disruptive for families to just remain in remote instruction right now rather than try to open for a week, and then have to slowly start closing schools or classrooms,” Trujillo said. “That creates a situation of stress and anxiety, where a parent might be counting on their kid returning back to school, enjoys that stability for five to seven days until the teacher gets COVID, then we have to notify that parent that their kid has to return to online instruction.”

When the district does decide to reopen, Trujillo said families will be given at least a two-week notice. He said TUSD is also working with the teacher’s association to build in time during these two weeks for teachers to return to the school site and prepare for in-person learning.

“As teachers transition back to campuses at that time, they're going to need some time away from teaching to set up classrooms, arrange desks, make sure that they're properly moved in again to be able to offer in-person instruction,” he said.

TUSD has on-site learning spaces for students who need access to computers and internet services. According to Trujillo, 2,340 students are currently attending the on-site locations and three active COVID-19 cases have been identified among them.

“We've heard from the Pima County Health Department, which is true, the transmission rate from student to student is very, very low. You see that reflected here,” he said.

The superintendent announced a dashboard with the district’s coronavirus cases listed by school will go live on Monday.