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Will Salt Lake County K-6 mask requirement stand?

Dr. Angela Dunn discusses schoolchildren and masks at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of Salt Lake County Health Department, discusses schoolchildren and masks at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. Two members of the Salt Lake County Council said Wednesday the mask requirement for students under 12 requested by the health department will likely be overturned.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Two members of the Salt Lake County Council said Wednesday the mask requirement for students under 12 requested by the health department will likely be overturned.

Councilman Dave Alvord said he spoke to other council members Tuesday evening after Dr. Angela Dunn, Salt Lake County Health Department executive director, announced she intends to request an "order of constraint" requiring masks when schools start next week for students ages 12 and under who can't get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The order will include exemptions from last year's state K-12 mask order and will only apply to indoor settings. It can remain in place for 30 days unless it is overturned by the County Council.

After speaking to his Republican colleagues, Alvord said he believes they will have enough votes to overturn the order. But votes can change, he noted, and some council members continue to struggle with a decision.

The vote comes as education, medical and children’s advocates groups issued statements supporting masks for elementary students, with some even pushing for a statewide mandate to return.

Council Chairman Steve DeBry also told KSL Newsradio he believes the council will ultimately vote against supporting the mask requirement. DeBry called a special meeting to vote to overturn the health order, which will take place on Thursday at 2 p.m. at the Salt Lake County Government Center. The resolution to overturn Dunn’s directive does not offer reasons for wanting to terminate the order.

Republicans have a 6-3 majority on the council.

"Over the last couple of weeks we've been getting hundreds of emails, and I've started to see a pattern that parents are talking about their own children, and I think that's made me feel more encouraged that it should be a parental choice. So I don't think a one-size-fits-all mandate is appropriate anymore. I think that may have made more sense at the beginning when we didn't know what we were up against," Alvord said.

Some parents also worry about the dangers of COVID-19 and want everyone masked at schools, the councilman acknowledged. But he said he would caution them and doesn't want to give parents a false sense of security. Parents should send their kids to school with the understanding that they may contract the virus whether or not they wear a mask, he noted.

"They need to be prepared for that," Alvord said.

"Even if we don't mandate it, we still do encourage parents to take every precaution they can, and individuals to take every precaution they can in assessing the risks of COVID and other risks in the world," he said, adding that he believes the vaccine is a better way of fighting the virus than masks.

Groups calling for mask rule to be upheld

The Utah Education Association said in a statement it supports the mask order and wants political leaders to support health recommendations.

"As you consider ways to protect our most vulnerable citizens, including our young students under age 12 who are unable as yet to receive the COVID vaccine, the Utah Education Association asks you to recognize and support the recommendations of medical professionals and health departments," UEA President Heidi Matthews said.

She said teachers are "very concerned" about the emerging coronavirus variants "and how they may affect student learning and educator workload."

"We all want what is best for our students to learn and thrive, which this year absolutely depends on our schools being safe and remaining open for in-person learning. The best way to address these issues is to slow the spread of the virus by following the recommendations given by Dr. Angela Dunn and her colleagues, the medical experts at the state and county health departments," Matthews said.

A statement from the Utah Academy of Family Physicians calls masking in schools “critical for in-person learning environments to mitigate COVID infections.”

Its statement continues: “Recent data from the CDC shows a notable difference in COVID cases when comparing schools requiring masks and those without mask requirements. In a study released on May 21, 2021, COVID-19 incidence was 37% lower in schools that required teachers and staff members to use masks.”

The group also noted that according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there were almost 72,000 new cases of COVID-19 among children the last week of July, up from 39,000 the week prior.

The Utah Public Health Association said in a statement it wants to see local health department authority to promote public health measures restored.

The group is urging local health departments and counties to issue data-driven public health orders, including universal masking in schools.

Activist group Voices for Utah Children is calling for the state Legislature to hold a special session to reinstate a mask requirement for all schools.

“When the Legislature enacted the ‘Endgame Bill,’ we were operating under an entirely different set of data points. Cases were going down. hospitalizations were going down and we were rolling out the vaccine. Currently, we are seeing cases spike upward and hospitalizations increasing,” the group said.

Its statement asks that all students over 2 years and all school staff wear face masks at school unless there is a medical or developmental condition that prevents mask-wearing.

During a special session in May, the Legislature banned school districts or the Utah Board of Education from requiring face masks in schools. Under the bill, schools and teachers can encourage mask-wearing, but they can't legally mandate it to attend or participate in in-person instruction, athletics or other extracurricular activities during the upcoming school year.

Only counties can now implement mask mandates — but the Legislature can overturn such mandates.

Democratic state lawmakers also issued a statement of support for Dunn’s order.

The Utah House Democratic Caucus said “the science is clear. Masks work, but only when everyone wears them.”

“We must do everything we can to avoid the circumstances of other states where hospital beds are filling with sick children.

“There is no way to rationalize putting any child at risk of serious illness, hospitalization, intubation, MIS-C, or long-term COVID over the temporary inconvenience of wearing a cloth mask indoors,” the caucus said.