Utah’s K-12 students need to continue to wear masks to stay in class and to help stop the spread of COVID-19, even though some parents are anxious to see that mandate lifted before the school year ends, Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday.
“I assure you, we hear you and understand that frustration,” the governor said during his weekly news conference updating the state’s progress on the pandemic, held in Roy. But he said because students can transmit the virus, masks remain necessary in schools until more Utahns are vaccinated.
A parent organization, Utah Parents United, plans to conduct rallies in several school districts on April 10 and is urging parents to send their children to school without masks on April 12.
According to the Utah Parents United Facebook page, parents across Utah will be walking their children into their schools without masks and declare their child will not wear a mask “as a mass rejection of the K-12 mask mandate. The time is NOW to end our children’s suffering!”
The SeeMySmile.org website says the ongoing mandate to wear masks in K-12 schools is a “double standard” if the mandate is being lifted elsewhere in the state.
Moreover, the website maintains Utah schools are safe. “The data shows children are at the lowest risk. Plus teachers have had a chance to be vaccinated.”
The website says “We need to see our kids’ smiles. Our children’s mental, emotional and physical health matter.”
The toolkit also includes parent resources such as draft letters to school officials to inform them their child will no longer be wearing a mask to school.
One draft says, in part, “The Utah Supreme Court recognizes in the Open Education Clause that the public school system will be open to all children of the state (UCA‐53E‐2‐301 Article 10). This will include my child who will begin coming to school without a mask.”
‘Let’s just stay strong’
A new law lifts the statewide mask mandate on April 10, and all other restrictions put in place against the coronavirus must end as soon as Utah receives 1.63 million first vaccine doses as long as case counts and hospitalization rates remain low, likely in mid-May.
But the law allows the mask mandate for students to stay in place through June 15, according to the Utah Department of Health. Cox said “masks are one of the ways” that schools have been able to open for in-person learning.
“If we were to remove masks, there are a whole bunch of vulnerable kids and vulnerable parents who would have to take their kids out of school and we don’t want that to happen,” the governor said, pointing out that Utah’s mask requirement in schools was key to a recent federal decision reducing the needed social distancing in classrooms.
“This is successful right now. We’re so close to the end. Let’s not make the mistake of pulling back too early,” he said. “Let’s make sure that we keep kids in school, keep kids safe.”
Utah Education Association Heidi Matthews likewise urged parents to continue to abide the mask mandate that has been in place since school started last fall.
“We can see a finish line. Let’s just stay strong until we get there,” she said.
Matthews said she understands that many people are weary of COVID-19 mitigation efforts but schools’ adherence to masking, social distancing and other hygiene measures have been effective at stemming spread of the virus and keeping schools open for teaching and learning.
Matthews said it’s “been a little bit frustrated by a group of parents who want to usurp that control, especially when we know that it’s actually working. We’re all working toward the same goal. We want our kids back in school and we want everyone to be healthy and safe,” she said.
Lexi Cunningham, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, said the same measures that enabled the vast majority of Utah schools to open in person this fall and remain open are needed to finish the school year and allow them to enjoy end-of-school year events such as dances, plays and sporting events.
“We are so, so lucky that we have had our kids in school all year,” Cunningham said, adding that some schools in other states have yet to return to in-person learning.
At the start of the school year, a few Utah parents balked at the mask mandate. Then, schools provided masks to students so they could join their classmates, which some opted to do, or they were referred to remote instruction resources.
Cunningham said she predicts that schools will follow the same procedures should parents bring students to schools unmasked on April 12.
“We’ll have masks available for students. We will have masks available for visitors and ask people to wear them. If they don’t, then they do have an option to work from home or work online, but we do need people to wear masks,” Cunningham said.
State employee mandate
Cox announced the state has set a new record Thursday for vaccinating Utahns against COVID-19, administering 46,011 doses since Wednesday. To date, 1,410,214 first and second doses have been given to Utahns, and more than 500,000 residents are now fully vaccinated.
He also said that for the first time, none of Utah’s 29 counties have high virus transmission rates, now that Beaver and Emery counties have moved to the moderate transmission level. There are now 23 counties at the moderate transmission level, and six — Daggett, Garfield, Juab, Piute, Rich and Wayne — are categorized as low.
“This means that everything we are doing here in Utah, everything you are doing here in Utah, is absolutely working. We want you to continue to do those things,” the governor said. “Your masks, your vaccines, your care for one another, your endurance, your patience as the weather is warming up, all of these signs are so good for us.”
State employees were told Wednesday they’ll have to keep wearing masks through the end of May, Cox said, an example he encouraged other employers to follow since they, too, have “the ability and, I would say, an obligation,” to keep workplaces safe.
“We want to make sure our employees all have an opportunity to get that vaccine before we take the masks away,” he said, adding it will likely take until the end of May before everyone who wants to be vaccinated is able to get a shot. The state opened up vaccinations to all Utahns 16 and older last week.
The governor said “there’s a difference between government mandating” that masks be worn and “giving people the freedom and the ability to choose” to require masks be worn by employees and customers. He said many businesses have already decided to keep the mask mandate after April 10.
Will Salt Lake County extend mandate?
The Salt Lake County Council is set to meet April 9 to consider whether to extend the mask mandate within the county, members of the county board of health were told earlier Thursday. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson has said even though masks are effective in stopping the virus, she doesn’t want “to stir things up.”
Gary Edwards, the county health department’s executive director, told the board the focus needs to be on vaccines and because the public expects the mask mandate to end on April 10, “doing other things will create confusion.”
Edwards said April 10 is an “arbitrary” date, negotiated between the governor and lawmakers who wanted to end the mask mandate sooner. Cox has said he sees no upside to the law, but signed it because he believed the votes were there to override a veto.
“My personal take is this is a bill that puts the Legislature in a no-lose position. They are the good guys because they’ve gotten rid of the mask mandate,” Edwards said, adding that if cases then spike, counties will be blamed for not imposing their own mandates. “Either way, they come out looking just fine.”
The state public health order mandating masks as well as imposing requirements on public gatherings of 50 or more people expires April 9. No decision has been announced on whether the requirements on those gatherings will be extended.
State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said Utah’s COVID-19 numbers continue to drop, largely thanks to a “truly amazing” vaccination effort over the past 3 1/2 months. But, Dunn said, no vaccine is 100% effective, so even someone who has been vaccinated can become infected.
She said in Utah, there have been about 96 so-called “breakthrough cases” of COVID-19 identified among the 521,686 Utahns who are considered fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been at least two weeks since they received their final dose. Around five of those cases ended up in the hospital, possibly due to underlying conditions, Dunn said.
The shots are preventing severe illness in those who contract the virus after getting vaccinated, Dunn said, citing as an example a cluster of more than 15 such cases in a long-term care facility where “not one individual had symptoms. This is a population that prior to the vaccinations, they would have a really high mortality rate.”
Thursday, the state health department reported 487 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of cases the state has seen to 386,128, and three additional deaths.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests for the virus is 411 per day, with 7,661 Utahns taking 18,760 tests since Wednesday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 3.4% when all results are included, and 6.8% when multiple tests by an individual in the past 90 days are excluded.
Currently, there are 136 COVID-19 patients in Utah hospitals.
Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus has reached 2,125 with the deaths of a Washington County woman and a Weber County woman, both between the ages of 65 and 84; and a Salt Lake County man, also between 65-84. All three were hospitalized at the time of their deaths.