Salt Lake students, teachers and employees largely adhered Tuesday to Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s executive order that requires mask-wearing in grades K-12 schools.

Tuesday was the first day of school in the Salt Lake City School District, and spot checks by the Deseret News suggested high compliance, if not full compliance at several schools in Utah’s capital city.

Timothy Gadson III, superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, toured several elementary, middle and high schools.

“It was amazing. It felt so good to see students, big and small, in classes, enjoying engaging with their peers and learning. It felt really good,” he said.

At each of the schools he visited, “every student masked up, every staff member masked up, no complaints, no concerns, anywhere.”

Gadson said he also saw no students acting as if their mask was “a barrier or a burden for them.”

“They were happy. They were engaged. They were socializing. They were interacting with one another as if these masks weren’t even on their faces,” he said.

Mendenhall, in a tweet Tuesday afternoon, wrote: “Sending our children off at the start of the school year is an experience like no other. To all the Salt Lake City School parents who took the same journey I did today, I hope you did it feeling confident that the health and wellbeing of your children are being looked after.”

Utah House Democrats representing the Salt Lake City area issued a statement that said in part: “Mayor Mendenhall is acting in the best interest of the safety of our city’s children and their education, our communities and healthcare workers.” 

The 30-day order is “the right course of action given the severity of the new variants of COVID-19 and is aligned with recommendations by the Salt Lake County Health Department and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention,” according to the statement by Reps. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, Brian King, Joel Briscoe, Sandra Hollins, Mark Wheatley, Angela Romero, Stephanie Pitcher and Doug Owens.  

Anastazia Dall works in her first grade class at Nibley Park School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
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It continued, “Masks provide protection not only to students who cannot yet receive vaccinations, but also teachers and school staff. The 30-day requirement allows us to monitor cases during the first month of school and avoid the circumstances of other states where record numbers of children are being hospitalized with COVID-19. We all want our kids to learn in person at school to the greatest extent possible, and a universal masking policy is the best tool to achieve that.”

Mendenhall insists she did not issue the order seeking to pick a fight with the Utah Legislature, explaining Utah Code allows a mayor to declare a state of emergency under certain conditions. City attorneys concluded Utah’s so-called pandemic “endgame” legislation — which limits local health departments’ and the governor’s emergency authority over mask orders — does not apply specifically to a mayor’s local emergency authority.

Salt Lake City school mask order ‘NOT enforceable,’ Utah legislative leader says

But some legislative leaders dispute the city’s legal interpretation and call the order an overreach of power and unenforceable.

“Mayor Mendenhall is a city mayor and has no authority over health or education policy,” House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday.

Second grade students are pictured through the window of their classroom at Nibley Park School.
Second grade students are pictured through the window of their classroom at Nibley Park School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
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