Some Utah parents are protesting, but here’s why Utah students will likely keep their masks on until summer

With vaccine unavailable to younger students, state health officials have told schools to enforce mask rules through June 15.

Adults may have the option to be mask-free in much of Utah, but the lawmaker who sponsored the “endgame” law that lifted the statewide mandate says residents shouldn’t expect K-12 schools to stop requiring masks this school year.

To move up the deadline to lift the K-12 order, “we’d have to do a special session,” said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield. The Utah Legislature, he added, has no plans to do that before the end of the school year.

As for next fall, Ray said he is optimistic that enough adults and teens will have been vaccinated against the coronavirus that Utahns will be protected by “herd immunity.”

“By the end of the summer, this is going to be completely behind us,” Ray said. “I really think that, going into the fall, [all mask requirements are] not going to be an issue.”

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is unwilling to predict that far ahead.

“If the virus is still running [in the fall] and we still need to be having masks when we’re indoors,” she said, “we’ll cross that.”

Who created the current K-12 mask mandate?

The current public health order that governs Utah’s coronavirus response statewide was put in place in January by Rich Saunders, executive director of the Utah Department of Health. The order was updated April 9, to run through June 15 — and reflects the changes enacted by the COVID-19 “endgame” bill, HB294.

That measure targeted the statewide mask mandate, setting its expiration date as April 10. But the law sets the date of July 1 to lift other emergency orders related to COVID-19, which allows the K-12 mandate to stay in place.

(Even with the state’s order expiring, many businesses and organizations continue to require masks on their premises.)

A spokeswoman for Gov. Spencer Cox said the governor “anticipate[s] the school mask mandate will continue until July 1.”

For anyone unhappy with the continuing K-12 mask mandate, Ray said, “Let’s not blame the schools. It’s a state health department mandate under the governor. The principal, the superintendent, nobody can change that requirement. It’s got to come from the governor’s office.”

Having a state-ordered mask rule, Matthews said, “has absolutely taken the pressure off not only our educators, but our administrators and our school districts, in being able to say, ‘This is what we’re expected to do.’”

UDOH also tells parents, in a list of frequently asked questions, that “local officials, like a school board or county council, don’t have the legal authority to end the mask requirement in schools before [June 15].”

The health department notes that the mask rule remains in place for schools because there is no COVID-19 vaccine authorized for children under 16, not every adult working in schools has been vaccinated, and children can get sick from COVID-19 or transmit the disease to people at home.

Ray’s advice to parents who object to mask mandates for their children: “Don’t go to the schools and cause problems. Put your kids in a mask, or keep them home [and learning] virtually.”

The two-week gap between the order’s June 15 expiration and July 1 date to lift all emergency COVID-19 orders will mostly affect year-round schools, he said.

Some parents are protesting now

On Saturday, a group called Utah Parents United scheduled “See My Smile” rallies at school district offices across Utah, demanding schools allow kids to go unmasked immediately — to coincide with the lifting of the statewide mask order.

The events drew handfuls of parents, with children in tow, in South Salt Lake, Farmington and other locations. Where there were rallies Saturday, organizers urged parents to accompany their children to school Monday and demand they be allowed to go maskless. A few parents, posting to the group’s Facebook page, said they did that.

In Salt Lake County, spokespeople at Salt Lake City, Murray, Granite, Canyons and Jordan school districts said there was no widespread mask resistance Monday. Ben Horsley, spokesman for Granite, said a solitary protester stood in front of the district’s South Salt Lake office for about an hour Monday.

“Just a handful of students” arrived at schools in the Canyons district without masks Monday, said spokesman Jeff Haney.

“We operated exactly like we have since the start of school in August,” he said. “That is to say, students were reminded that masks were required and masks were provided to the students who did not have them.”

Monday was the first day back from spring break at Canyons, and “other than the heightened awareness of mask-wearing,” Haney said, “it wasn’t much different than any other day of this school year.”

Parents can seek exemptions from the K-12 mask mandate for students’ health reasons, such as asthma or allergies, Michelle Hofmann, UDOH’s deputy director, has noted.

There have been 439 COVID-19 cases in Utah schools in the past two weeks, according to UDOH, and 36,605 cases related to schools during the entire school year.

UDOH issued a “fraud alert” Tuesday, warning against fake cards — bearing the department’s seal and Saunders’ signature — that supposedly give the bearer an exemption to mask rules. Neither UDOH nor local health departments provide such cards, the department tweeted.

Matthews said teachers who are UEA members are “as divided as the nation, in terms of the politicizing of masks, the freedom and the responsibilities, and that whole discussion.”

“We especially see that frustration in our rural areas, where the [case] numbers aren’t high, and they are able to follow that physical distancing — so there has been significant frustration with the continuation of the mandate in schools,” Matthews said. “On the other side, particularly in urban areas, there is a clamoring for this to continue, because they know that it is working to bring the virus down.”

Will school kids wear masks next fall?

It’s clear that not all Utah kids will have access to vaccines by the time school starts again in the fall.

The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced on March 31 that a clinical trial found the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine — one of three authorized for adults in the United States — to be 100% effective in preventing COVID-19 in children 12 to 15.

The data is being studied by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Pfizer vaccine could be approved for adolescents as soon as July. If that happens, health experts say many teens could be vaccinated by the start of the next school year.

Younger children may have a longer wait. Clinical trials to determine the vaccine’s safety and dosage with small children have just begun, some of them in Utah. It may be a year or more before those trials produce data for the FDA to consider.

“We’re all weary of masks,” Matthews said. However, she said, her concerns going into the next school year go past whether mask rules are in place in Utah’s schools.

“I think about all of the pressures that our educators have been under and the number of people who are rethinking education as a career,” Matthews said. “It’s been hard to teach in this atmosphere, because we’re having to do things in so many different ways — with so many technical difficulties, and concerns about reaching students.”

What schools look like in the fall, Matthews said, “has a lot to do with the ground we prep in these upcoming months, to lay the foundation for those best-case possibilities.”