Salt Lake County children under the age of 12 will be required to wear masks at school under an “order of restraint” to be issued by Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department.
The order can remain in place for 30 days unless it is overturned by the Salt Lake County Council, according to state law passed in March.
County Council Chairman Steve DeBry posted on Facebook that he will be calling a special meeting of the council at 2 p.m. Thursday “for a vote on a resolution to overturn the mask mandate. The agenda will be posted tomorrow.”
Dunn’s action comes as many school districts prepare to open, with Murray City School District seventh graders returning on Friday and students in the Canyons and Jordan districts and the remainder of Murray students starting next week. Salt Lake and Granite districts resume the following week.
Dunn said she viewed the order “as the best way forward for Salt Lake County” and the best means to keep children safe during in-person learning. The order would require masking indoors.
“I’m focused on those who are ineligible for vaccination and have no other way to protect themselves from the spread of COVID-19,” Dunn said. Federal regulators have not yet authorized the use of a coronavirus vaccine in children under the age of 12.
A statement from Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney said the district will await a decision from the County Council regarding the order and “ask for the patience and cooperation of our community while government and health officials review and deliberate this issue according to the process as outlined in state law.”
As they have prepared to ramp up to the start of school, some Salt Lake County districts have communicated to parents on their websites that masks are not required but note recommendations from local and state health departments that encourage masking.
Jordan School District had no immediate comment, and Salt Lake City School District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Salt Lake City School District’s website states that masking is “strongly recommended and encouraged for Salt Lake City School District employees, students and visitors while indoors based upon recently available data and input from the Salt Lake County Health Department.”
Regardless what county officials decide, all students who ride school buses and bus drivers must wear masks as required under federal law.
Dunn was joined by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson as she made the announcement in the county health department offices Tuesday afternoon.
“I will not terminate this request, which means it will be in the hands of the County Council,” Wilson said.
“We now are hoping that the council actually doesn’t meet, that they let the request stand and that starting Monday, kids will be able to go to school with the mass requirement,” Wilson said.
The announcement was made as the County Council met in a regularly scheduled meeting.
Under state law, a local health department must provide 24 hours notice to their county elected officials before declaring a public health emergency or issuing an order of constraint. Wilson said she received Dunn’s notification shortly after noon on Tuesday.
Elected county officials may overturn an order at any time. There is a 30-day maximum limit on an initial order of constraint. Elected officials must be provided 10 days’ notice if the health department requests an extension.
Even before the announcement, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall urged the Salt Lake County Council to support Dunn if she announced a mask mandate.
“I respectfully request that if Dr. Dunn determines masks are necessary in K-12 schools, you support her recommendation knowing that it comes from an extensive evaluation of scientific data and is the best strategy to protect our children who are so vulnerable at this time,” Mendenhall wrote.
But a number of Salt Lake County Council members have indicated they would likely not support such an order.
Earlier in the day, Dunn presented new data to the County Council that showed rising case rates among children.
“Yesterday, the 5 to 11 year olds had a case rate of 261 per 100,000, that’s a fourfold increase from last year. This is showing that the virus has definitely changed. It’s more transmissible and is infecting our kids more readily. And it’s also impacting our population more readily,” Dunn said.
Salt Lake County Council member Richard Snelgrove said there has been “a lot of noise around adults, angry adults, with different opinions on all sides. I feel this has led to some cases of children getting psyched out because of what they’re hearing,” he said.
Snelgrove said a recent study from the University of Colorado showed sharp increases in youths seeking care from its psychiatric emergency department over issues of anxiety, suicide attempts, suicidal thoughts and depression.
“So that data from Utah in Salt Lake County would be helpful as well as we evaluate this, because yes there’s a physical aspect of COVID, but also there’s the concern that maybe in fact, the psychological damage to children may be even more severe,” Snelgrove said.
Dunn said she agreed, adding, “I think that it is incumbent on all adults to be leaders and the way we talk about this with our kids and not be divisive and not cause them more stress.”
She continued, “Keeping kids in school I think is our No. 1 priority so that they have that support every single day. Our priority in public health right now is to keep kids in in-person learning. That’s what we’re here to talk about: What is the best way that we can ensure we don’t have as much disruption as they had last year in their learning?”