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Summit County issues public health order regarding masks for elementary schools

Students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in South Salt Lake wear masks as they get on a bus
Summit County Health Department issued a public health order on Saturday defining metrics that would require masks in elementary schools.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Summit County Health Department issued a public health order on Saturday requiring masks if any elementary school reaches a 2 percent COVID-19 positivity rate among the total number of students, staff and faculty over a 14 day period.

The order will go into effect at 12:01 a.m. on Wednesday.

The county's six elementary schools will be evaluated by the order's metrics as separate campuses, according to a press release. The metrics were determined by the health department and public officials by using the "Test to Stay" program outlined in SB107.

The "Test to Stay" program requires a school with 30 active COVID-19 cases over a 14-day period to implement testing among students to allow them to return to campus. Summit County Health Department officials say the public health order was created as an intermediary measure to prevent significant outbreaks of COVID-19 while keeping children in classrooms.

"We recognize there are very strong opinions on both sides of the mask discussion," Summit County Health Director Dr. Phil Bondurant said in a news release. "Ultimately, I want to provide the safest, healthiest learning environment in Summit County schools for the upcoming school year while allowing for parental choice. Masks are not a failproof solution to eliminate COVID-19. However, it is well documented that masks are an effective strategy to minimize illness."

Summit County Council, the county manager and Bondurant discussed the order with the State Board of Education prior to issuing it to determine if the order held legal power and authority, the release added. The Summit County Attorney's Office approved the order of constraint making it an enforceable document.

"The Summit County Council is committed to taking any necessary action available to us within the confines of the law to proactively protect students this school year," Summit County Council Chair Glenn Wright said in a release. "We support Dr. Bondurant's approach and do not currently intend to consider termination of this Public Health Order. This course of action was taken after careful consideration of the county's legal authorities and recent public input."

Utah legislation requires the order to be reviewed in 30 days.

Summit County's public health order follows mandates from both Grand County School District and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

Grand County School District in conjunction with the Grand County Commission, the Southeast Utah Health Department and Moab Regional Hospital announced on Thursday masks would be required inside for elementary school students.

Thursday's announcement was followed by Mendenhall's emergency order on Friday which requires masks for K-12 schools. The decision comes after the Salt Lake City School District said it would not take a vote to support an order. Despite refusing to vote, school district officials praised Mendenhall's decision on Friday.

The Salt Lake City Attorney determined it was within Mendenhall's legal options to issue an emergency order. The mandates and orders may face challenges as the 2021 Legislature passed a law banning masks for elementary-age children in schools. The Legislature also established that a mandate in some cases requires a public health official to recommend one and then seek county commission or council approval.

Health officials have urged masking among elementary-age children and vaccinations for eligible groups that are 12 and older.

"What we expect to see — and hope that we don't — is that we will see some pretty significant transmission in the school," said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare on Friday.

Summit County Health Department encouraged parents and students to follow guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding mask usage, proper sanitization practices and social interactions both in and out of school as it resumes.