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Utah lawmakers question school mask mandate for K-12 kids

FILE -- Students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in South Salt Lake wear masks as the get on a bus to go home after their first day of school on Aug. 24, 2020. (PHOTO: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Some Utah lawmakers want to know why children in grades K-12 are still subject to a mask mandate at school. 

The state public schools superintendent and the health department answered questions during a legislative committee hearing on Thursday.

Lawmakers discussed how SB 195 (the bill that lays out emergency powers) doesn’t spell out who is in charge of the state’s decision to mandate masks.

The school mask mandate debate

State superintendent Dr. Sydnee Dickson says most Utah school districts used the school mask requirements to have safety plans in the fall while other states and Salt Lake City opted for online learning.

“At the time, leading into the fall, our rates of spread were much higher, we were trying to get into school safely,” she said.

But committee members on the Administrative Rules Committee asked if a statewide school mask mandate was still necessary now, when teachers are vaccinated and the statewide mask mandate is gone. They also point out that transmission is low among children.

Decisions made by state, or local leaders?

Utah state Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Utah, says he doesn’t mind wearing a mask and his kids don’t. But he’s worried about many other issues affecting kids and teens like their mental health. And he wondered why local school districts, especially in areas with no COVID-19 cases, couldn’t make these decisions themselves.

“You might be looking at multiple points of data, but you are only looking at one aspect of all the data. You are a non-elected official, meaning you are not directly accountable to the citizens who gave you the power to act,” he said.

But Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said masks are important for kids, because her 6-year-old now has long-term health effects from the virus.

Research supports keeping schools open with mitigation

The CDC currently reports children between the ages of 5 and 17 represent less than 10% of all COVID cases, supporting the argument for keeping schools open. But the agency recommended children and adults continue to wear masks at school. 

“When prevention strategies – especially mask use and physical distancing – are consistently and correctly used, the risk of transmission in the school environment is decreased,” the CDC study’s authors wrote

No action taken for now

The committee ended without taking any action. Gov. Spencer Cox told reporters on Thursday that he won’t remove the mandate, either. That means masks will probably stay in schools through the end of this school year, in late May and early June depending on the district.

Local resources

KSL Coronavirus Q&A 

Utah’s Coronavirus Information 

Utah State Board of Education

Utah Hospital Association

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Utah Coronavirus Information Line – 1-800-456-7707

National Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Commonly asked questions, World Health Organization

Cases in the United States

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