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Salt Lake City mayor poised to issue school mask mandate — if school board signals support

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, City Council urge school board to hold emergency meeting on school mask order

Giancarlo Gonzalez, 6, wears a mask as he arrives for the first day of school at Altara Elementary in Sandy.
Giancarlo Gonzalez, 6, who is entering first grade, wears a mask as he and other students are given the red-carpet treatment as they arrive for the first day of school at Altara Elementary in Sandy on Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Tuesday said she’s prepared to issue a school mask mandate in Salt Lake City School District — if the school district holds an emergency meeting to vote in support of a mandate.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Tuesday said she’s prepared to issue a school mask mandate in Salt Lake City School District — if the school district signals its support.

“It’s critically important to me, actually, that our locally elected school board play a role in any decision that I may make related to orders related to the district,” Mendenhall said. “I’ve asked the school board to make an official recommendation on a requirement for masks in schools.”

The Salt Lake City School District’s next regularly scheduled meeting isn’t until Sept. 3, so that means the school board would have to call an emergency meeting in order to decide its position on a school mask mandate if its members want it in place before school starts. The first day of school in that district is Aug. 24, one week away.

The mayor’s comments that she’s willing to issue a Salt Lake City school mask mandate come after the Salt Lake County Council struck down a school mask mandate order request after a passionate unmasked crowd called for parental choice over masks in schools.

“It would have been much more impactful and would have prevented far more illness for the County Council to have supported Dr. (Angela) Dunn’s mask order for schools countywide,” Mendenhall said. “Pending our school board’s support, though, I would be prepared to act in my capacity to put that order in place for our school district.”

Since Monday, 113 children between the ages of 5 and 13 tested positive for COVID-19, the mayor said. Of those, 91 are between the ages of 5 and 10 years old. In the past week, 713 children between the ages of 5 and 13 tested positive, compared to 133 during the same period last year. Of those, 458 are between the ages of 5 and 10, compared to 62 last year, according to city data.

Mendenhall pointed to COVID-19 “disasters” that are already playing out in schools across the country, especially in Florida where about 5,600 students in the Hillsborough County school district in Florida are in isolation or quarantine as COVID-19 cases continue to surge.

“The biggest concern right now is the health of our unvaccinated school kids who are about to start classes in Salt Lake School District a week from today on Aug. 24 — without anything in place to protect them from the pandemic,” Mendenhall said. “This is a part of our population that really doesn’t have any choice but to remain unvaccinated, especially the K-6.”

The mayor said they “have to be indoors in a group of other unvaccinated people for an extended period of time.”

“That’s unique. That’s very different from where we were at as a community last year,” Mendenhall said. “And it makes them especially vulnerable to contracting the virus and the more contagious delta variant and spreading it to other people and their families and the community at large.”

The mayor said she’s confident, based on a legal analysis from the city attorney’s office, that she has the power to issue the order.

Mendenhall said city attorneys conducted a “detailed and thorough analysis” of whether she’d have the power to issue a school mask mandate, even though the Utah Legislature’s pandemic “endgame” law, HB294, limits the ability for officials to issue mask mandates.

Although the Legislature enacted laws that specifically limit local health departments’ and the governor’s emergency authority over mask orders, those limits do not apply specifically to a mayor’s local emergency authority in the same way, the mayor said city attorneys have concluded.

“I’m fully confident in our city attorneys’ findings,” Mendenhall said.

After the mayor’s comments, Salt Lake City Councilman James Rogers formally requested the Salt Lake City School District “hold an emergency meeting prior to Sept. 3 to make that decision so that these kids know exactly what they’re going to be confronted with for the rest of their school year or during this spike.”

The mayor said she’s been in communication with the school district and school board leadership. “There are individuals on the school board who are supportive of a mask order, but they, not having the opportunity to come together to have that public discussion until Sept. 3, really feel that it’s critical that they be able to do that.”

“That would be a way for them to do so potentially before school starts,” Mendenhall. “It’s obvious but it’s important to everyone that teachers be able to have the supplies that they need to manage their classrooms and their students safely.

“If we were able to get that support from the school district before school starts, I think it would be best for everyone,” Mendenhall said.

Rogers said the Salt Lake City Council is in support “of them having some sort of emergency meeting prior to that date ... so whatever you need from us, if it helps, we’ll be willing to back you on that.”

Mendenhall said she’d share that comment with the school board.

Later Tuesday evening, the Salt Lake City School District and its board issued a statement saying they share Mendenhall’s “concern about the health of our students,” but what happens next hinges on what a local school board can do under state law.

“We’ve seen the effectiveness of mask-wearing in helping slow the spread of COVID-19. Consistent and proper mask-wearing played an important role in preventing any schools in Salt Lake City School District from closing last year,” the school board said. “The health and safety of our students continues to be our top priority.”

However, “while we share Mayor Mendenhall’s concern,” the school board said state laws “currently appear to limit our ability to enforce a mask mandate.”

“Therefore, we are seeking a legal opinion on what actions a local school board can take regarding masking in schools within the scope of state law.”

Contributing: Marjorie Cortez