When a student disobeys a school rule, there are opportunities for “teaching moments” to help bring them into compliance.
So it goes with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s mask mandate that requires K-12 students, educators and staff to wear face coverings inside Salt Lake City schools.
“We’re working from a framework of educating and reminding families and students that that is the requirement, and we’re enforcing it to that point,” said Sandra Buendia, the Salt Lake City School District’s executive director of educational equity and student support.
“The policing element is not within our purview, necessarily. So we’re enforcing it by reminding everybody, offering them a mask, and if they have a medical exemption we certainly honor that.”
Salt Lake School District Superintendent Timothy Gadson III said he has visited every school in the district “and we have about 99.8% compliance.”
Not complying with the mayor’s order can result in being charged with a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine up to $1,000, but so far, police enforcement of the mask order hasn’t occurred.
Salt Lake police detective Michael Ruff said he was unaware of any calls from schools for assistance for people who refuse to comply with masking nor was he aware of school resource officers responding to such incidents.
“It’s always been a voluntary compliance, education component. We’re not out trying to write citations or make arrests or anything like that,” Ruff said.
Nor does the school district intend to refer instances of students not wearing masks to school to law enforcement, said Gadson.
“We are handling students not wearing a mask like any misbehavior, where we work with the parents of those students to address that misbehavior or noncompliance with masks,” he said.
The executive order leaves open the option for calling police. In some other states, disputes over mask wearing escalated to the point that parents have assaulted school personnel.
“The district does not believe referring students to the police for the simple act of not wearing a mask is an appropriate action for us to take. We will follow the mayor’s order by encouraging and educating our students about mask wearing, and we will continue to provide in-person learning as state law dictates,” said school district spokesman Jason Olsen in a statement.
Some, like Salt Lake City School Board member Katherine Kennedy said the school district “should find ways to deal with that 0.2%” not wearing masks if their noncompliance is “persistent.”
She suggested placing students who persistently refuse to wear a mask in a separate room where they could continue in-person learning.
“It’s not just a matter of misbehavior,” she said. “It’s public health.”
Board member Mohamed Baayd cautioned against creating divisions, and said he preferred teaching by example, which he said he had witnessed at his son’s school.
“We want everyone to feel home and welcome. We do not want to build a wall that separates those who are in compliance with our laws and those who are not. We know that it is a risk, but in the long run, we’re trying to build the community. There is enough division going on in this world. Enough. It’s been too long and too much,” Baayd said.
Kennedy said it’s not a matter of inclusion; it’s an issue of public health.
“It’s not about making people feel good if they don’t want to wear a mask. It’s about keeping students alive who are at high risk,” she said.
Gadson said his concern is a student who is caught between their home and school and the negative impacts on the relationship between educators and a student “who thinks we criminalized the behavior, or we’ve taken punitive action against them.”
No other mayor in Salt Lake County has issued a similar executive order. Some mayors question whether they have the authority to do so.
Another factor is, only Salt Lake City’s boundaries are contiguous to the school district’s boundaries. Murray’s city boundaries encompass the school district’s but also spill over to some Granite School District schools.
In a recent open letter to Millcreek residents, Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said he and members of the Millcreek City Council had been inundated with requests to follow Salt Lake City’s lead to issue an order requiring masks but also “a fair number of requests that I refrain from issuing such a directive.”
Silvestrini, who is an attorney, reviewed both Salt Lake City’s order and the health order of constraint issued by the Salt Lake County Health Department that ordered mask-wearing in K-6 schools that was swiftly terminated by a 6-3 vote of the Salt Lake County Council on a party-line vote. A majority of Millcreek City Council members told Silvestrini they would not support a mask mandate.
He noted that the school district had not asked the city to enact an executive order, and Millcreek is one of several cities served by Granite School District.
Other mayors Silvestrini has spoken with believe “that Mayor Mendenhall’s authority is questionable, and they do not intend to follow suit,” he wrote.
Silvestrini wrote that his research and advice of Millcreek’s city attorney “confirms that while a loophole may possibly exist, certainly it was the intent of the Legislature that the decision to invoke an ‘order of constraint’ such as a mask mandate in a public health emergency be the province of county health departments and county legislative bodies, not city mayors.”
City mayors lack health departments and direct access to the best available data for the county and municipalities, he continued.
“Mayors also do not have jurisdiction over school districts in Utah. It is not a good thing for local officials to stretch the limits of their authority, no matter how much some argue the ends justify the means,” the letter continues.
Based on these factors, Silvestrini said he has deferred declaring a state of local emergency “pending collection of more data and a possible reconsideration of this issue by the Salt Lake County Council should conditions rapidly deteriorate. This is really their decision under the law.”
Silvestrini said health professionals recommend that “unvaccinated, vulnerable elementary schoolchildren” wear masks to school.
“I hope that parents take responsibility here,” he said.