Last week, the Federal Drug Administration gave the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine emergency authorization for use in children ages 5-11. The approval also started a count-down in the Grand County School District—after Dec. 18, the first day of holiday break, the Southeast Utah Health Department will not renew a mask mandate for the school district. Students will return to school on Jan. 3, 2022.

This timeline was developed “as a guideline and estimate to allow for 5-11 year olds to become fully vaccinated before lifting the mandate,” said Brittney Garff, public information officer at the Southeast Utah Health Department.

“We absolutely recommend everyone ages five and older be vaccinated for COVID-19,” she said. “The COVID vaccine is safe and effective for all age groups. The vaccine can keep you from getting and spreading the virus, while it can also keep you from getting seriously ill if you do get COVID.”

5-11 year olds could get vaccinated in Grand County starting on Nov. 8—the health department held two vaccination clinics at Helen M. Knight Elementary School on Nov. 8 and 9, and is working on a plan to schedule more clinics.

The vaccine for 5-11 year olds is a two-dose vaccination given three weeks apart. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccine for 5-11 year olds has the same active ingredients given to adults and adolescents, but children in that age range receive an “age-appropriate” dose that is one-third of the adult dose, administered with smaller needles.

According to a presentation given to the CDC on Nov. 2 by Dr. Jefferson Jones, a medical officer and member of the epidemiology task force, children aged 5-11 are making up a greater proportion of total COVID-19 cases in the U.S.: the week of Oct. 10, children in that age range made up 10.6% of total cases.

According to the CDC, since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 8,300 children aged 5-11 in the U.S. have been hospitalized with COVID-19, and at least 172 children have died from the virus.

During the 2020-2021 school year, the Grand County School District had a mask mandate in place. In May 2021, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill that restricted mask mandates in schools, becoming one in the nine states in the country to do so. The bill prohibits both schools and the Utah Board of Education from requiring “face coverings” in order for students to attend schools. However, the bill doesn’t prohibit all school mask mandates in all circumstances: local health departments can issue 30-day mask mandates with approval from the state or county government.

When the school year started in August 2021, the school district only had a mask mandate in place for its K-6 students—but in September, Grand County High School was forced to close following an outbreak of COVID-19 amongst staff that overwhelmed the school’s capacity to hire substitute teachers. A district-wide mandate was enacted on Monday, Sept. 13, and has continued since.

“GCSD supports the mask mandate because we know that when students wear masks, they are more protected than when they do not,” said Superintendent Taryn Kay in a letter to students, staff, parents, and community members on Oct. 1.

The use of the Pfizer vaccine in children ages 12-15 is also approved under an emergency authorization, and the FDA gave the Pfizer vaccine full approval for anyone 16 and over on Aug. 23. As of Nov. 5, 68.49% of the Grand County population is fully vaccinated, according to the health department.