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Grand County is the only place in Utah with a school mask mandate. Here’s how, and why

Torah Neil, 10, holds a sign in support of school mask mandates in Salt Lake City.
Torah Neil, 10, holds a sign in support of school mask mandates outside of the Utah State Board of Education office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Elementary school students in Grand County School District will be required to wear masks indoors when school starts on Thursday under a new mask mandate.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Elementary school students in Grand County School District will be required to wear masks indoors when school starts on Thursday under a new mask mandate.

The 30-day mandate was announced jointly by the school district, the Grand County Commission, the Southeast Utah Health Department and Moab Regional Hospital. It goes into effect the first day of school.

The nonpartisan Grand County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday evening to lend its support to the mandate.

The requirement only applies to elementary schools because children under 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. After 30 days, the mandate will be reevaluated, said Grand County School District Superintendent Taryn Kay.

“We just collectively took the stand to say, ‘We’re going to be proactive rather than reactive. Any sick kid is one too many,’” Kay said.

The County Commission agreed to send a letter to the school district, hospital and county health department memorializing its vote.

Commission Chairwoman Mary McGann said the letter helps ensure the mask mandate “can move ahead without that anxiety that our commission, like the Salt Lake County Council did, can turn this over on its head. We want to make sure that it is in writing and very clear that we as a commission are behind it and support our local health people, our hospital, our doctors, our health district and our superintendent.”

Commissioner Jacques Hadler, whose children attend Grand County School District’s Helen M. Knight Elementary School, spoke in support of the letter.

“I do have two children at HMK and I feel much safer sending them to school with a mask mandate. Both of my daughters told me that they feel safer going to school with the mask mandate. I think we’re making the right decision here,” he said.

Commissioner Trisha Hedin, a high school educator, said her father is a logger living in a rural Nevada town with a population of 44 people. She said she has only seen her “tough guy” father scared twice in his life — when his wife died and when he contracted COVID-19.

He ended up hospitalized in an intensive care unit in a Reno hospital.

“Eventually they kicked him out because they needed the bed. It’s real and I come from a very conservative background. It rattled his cage and it rattled all of our cages. I believe that we’re doing the right thing,” Hedin said.

Kay said she met earlier this week with health authorities, Moab Regional Hospital and McGann to discuss how schools elsewhere in the country had fared with transmission of COVID-19 since reopening this fall. They found coronavirus and its variants are hitting children hard, and more children are being hospitalized than before.

Locally, cases are increasing and pediatric intensive care unit beds in the region are scarce. One child with COVID-19 is currently hospitalized at Moab Regional Hospital.

“Just looking at it, we’re sort of at this crossroads of do we want to be proactive or reactive, you know? Do we think cases will happen? Yes. And so, are we willing to risk our littles, our 5- to 12-year-olds, getting really ill or should we be proactive? Because we know we have a really effective mitigation strategy that works,” Kay said.

Bradon Bradford, health officer and director of the Southeast Utah Health Department, said the agencies had hoped to avoid a mask mandate, but current conditions drove the decision.

“I’d hoped that we’d be in a better situation. We didn’t want to go this route. I hope that vaccines are approved shortly and we can remove it as soon as possible,” he said.

A message to the community noted the success of last year’s mitigation efforts, among them universal masking.

“Grand County School District is one of the few districts in the country that was able to be open for in-person instruction all year,” the message said in part.

When Utah Gov. Spencer Cox lifted the universal masking mandate for schools last spring, the local school board voted to keep masking in place until the end of the year.

Among the school district’s 1,500 students, there were only 80 cases of COVID-19 the entire school year, Bradford said.

“We did not close schools at all, and we had very little school spread of COVID,” Kay said. “We did have positive cases, but the vast majority of those were not spread. They didn’t get sick at school and they didn’t spread it at school; largely they got sick from someone else either in the community or at home.”

The school district is strongly encouraging mask-wearing by elementary school educators and staff “in solidarity” with students, Kay said.

“If a staff member is vaccinated — and we have about 83% of our staff are fully vaccinated — they can have the choice to wear a mask or not. ... So at this point, we’re leaving it to personal decision, and we’re strongly recommending that anyone who isn’t vaccinated, any staff member, to wear their mask,” Kay said.

Kay said the mask mandate will help protect children not eligible for vaccination but also the community.

“We know from data that’s out there that kids can take COVID to their homes and, in fact, their immunocompromised relatives, sometimes with really devastating effect. So we see it as protecting the community as well,” she said.

Bradford and Kay acknowledge that there are diverse opinions about mask-wearing in schools but “we’re trying to take local responsibility for a situation,” Kay said.

An effort to institute a similar mask mandate in Salt Lake County schools for children under age 12 was terminated last week by 6-3 party line vote of the GOP-controlled County Council shortly after the health order was issued.