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Dr. Dunn’s school mask mandate is the right approach

The Salt Lake County Council needs to support the mask mandate for students 12 and under. It’s the best way to avoid constant disruptions that require kids to miss classes.

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Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, talks to the media on Aug. 10.

Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of Salt Lake County Health Department, announces her decision Tuesday to issue a mask mandate for all students 12 and under. The County Council will vote Thursday on whether to accept this decision.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Dr. Angela Dunn’s decision to issue a mask mandate for school children 12 and under in Salt Lake County is being drowned by the usual voices that want to dominate the state’s pandemic response.

That’s a shame, and it won’t get Salt Lake County any closer to gaining control over COVID-19 and its relentless impact on lives. Anyone who calms down and listens will begin to understand the sound reasoning behind her decision.

We hope members of the County Council are among those who listen carefully. They are scheduled to meet Thursday to decide whether to adopt Dunn’s mandate. They ought to do so.

In addition, state lawmakers, who acted much too hastily last winter to end the statewide mask mandate, ought to meet in a special session to make a 12-and-under mandate apply statewide.  

Dunn, executive director of Salt Lake County Health Department, told us in an interview Wednesday that the main reason for her mandate is a desire to minimize the constant stream of students who have to miss school because they either contract the virus or are exposed to it — both of which require time away from classes and other students.

“We want as little disruption as possible for our kids in school,” she said.

Learning suffers when a constant and varying stream of students is forced to miss weeks of school at a time. Last year was disruptive enough. If young kids are forced into another year of quarantines, absences and online lessons, they run the risk of falling seriously behind in their learning.

In addition, the use of masks will greatly reduce incidences of the flu, Respiratory Syncytial Virus (or RSV) and other illnesses among students. Incidences of these diseases were greatly reduced last year. Dunn said this would keep children from having to seek medical attention at a time when Utah hospitals already are overburdened.

Some people prefer to discount the recommendations of health professionals or to ascribe ulterior motives to the things they say. That is wrong. Health professionals, by the nature of their jobs, have a keen interest in protecting the public. Dr. Dunn has a proven track record and has been articulate about the reasons behind her recommendations.

She’s also not alone.

The Utah Public Health Association issued a statement Wednesday in support of the school mask mandate. The organization, which represents more than 200 public health workers from a variety of health-related disciplines, supports a state-wide mandate for all indoor spaces, as well as expanded efforts to vaccinate more Utahns. 

The aim, it said, is “to promote the continued success of Utah’s economy and help all Utahns thrive.”

The Utah Education Association also weighed in with a letter from President Heidi Matthews to the Salt Lake County Council. “Utah educators are very concerned about the impact of emerging COVID variants and how they may affect student learning and educator workload,” it said.

Voices for Utah Children, an advocacy group for children, issued a statement in favor of the mandate. It also called for lawmakers to make it mandatory for all K-12 students in the state to wear masks in school.

None of this would be necessary, of course, if all eligible Utah adults would become vaccinated. A failure to do so has allowed the delta variant to gain a foothold in the state. Other variants, perhaps more dangerous, may be coming.

The time for political arguments over masks is over. The pandemic won’t end by fiat any more than it will through wishful thinking. 

The Salt Lake County Council should listen to the advice of its chief medical officer and require masks so that children may learn and thrive this school year.