Utah schools can ditch the masks for the last week of school, Gov. Spencer Cox said

Cox will lift rule that state employees have to wear masks in state facilities, starting Saturday

Utah schools will be allowed to go mask-free for the last week of school, after Gov. Spencer Cox announced he is lifting a statewide rule requiring masks in K-12 schools.

The change is meant “to give kids an opportunity to see their teachers, to see their friends, to spend that last week together without masks, if they so choose,” Cox said at his weekly COVID-19 media briefing Thursday at the Utah Capitol.

“I think about kids in elementary school who haven’t been able to see their teacher’s face, and their friends’ faces,” Cox said. “That stuff matters. It’s really important.”

Local districts will be given the option to keep mask rules in place during the last week of school, Cox said, “if they feel there is spread [of the virus] in their schools, or that they want to have mask requirements.”

Cox cited the steady decrease in new cases of COVID-19 statewide, and the rise in Utahns who have received the vaccine. Cox also expressed excitement that more students — including his own 14-year-old — soon will be vaccinated, after Wednesday’s announcement that the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for children ages 12 to 15.

Mask use will still be encouraged, Cox said, “and families and children will be able to make those decisions.” Cox also urged “everyone be respectful of the choices that are made by those families for that last week.”

Cox’s order received a harsh critique from Dr. Emily Spivak, an infectious disease physician and an associate professor at the University of Utah’s medical school.

“This makes no sense when no child under age 16 will be fully vaccinated and only sends confusing messages,” Spivak wrote in a tweet posted Thursday. “I don’t know of a single public health or medical provider that would support this. Continue to #MaskUpUtah until fully vaccinated.”

The Jordan School District will lift its mask requirements in all its facilities starting Friday, May 28, a spokeswoman said, including for graduation and other school activities.

The Granite School District — whose board ended a meeting early when anti-mask demonstrators shouted down the members last week — will lift its mask requirement on June 1, although masks are still recommended, a spokesman for the district said.

Canyons School District will lift its mask requirement on Monday, May 24, according to a post on the district’s website. Those who wish to keep wearing a mask can, and online learning options will be available for students who would rather stay home during the final week, the district said.

The Provo School District also will make masks optional starting May 24, an announcement on the district’s website said. “We ask for all to be mutually respectful of each individual/family choices,” the statement said.

The Alpine School District also set May 24 as the date it will lift its mask requirements, spokesman David Stephenson said Friday. Masks are still recommended, and “we encourage kindness, compassion, and civility toward all,” Stephenson said.

Larry Madden, superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District, said in a newsletter to parents Thursday that “I hope to share more information about our district’s plans very soon.”

A Murray School District spokesman, Doug Perry, said Thursday that its school boards will be reviewing Cox’s rule change before making any decisions. Perry said the district “appreciate[s] the governor’s confidence in allowing each district to decide what’s best for them.”

Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, said she expected many students would continue to wear masks at school, even without a mandate from the state government. “We ended the statewide mandate [for adults] a month ago, and we still see people wearing masks,” she said.

Families, Hofmann said, will have to discuss what’s best for their children during the last weeks of the school year. She cited a conversation she had with her 17-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter at the dinner table Wednesday night.

“My son said, ‘I’m fully immune. I’ve been vaccinated. I’m going to wear my mask and I want to go to school,’” Hofmann said. “My daughter said, ‘I haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated yet’ — her appointment’s tomorrow — ‘I don’t feel comfortable going to school. I don’t want to go to school. I’ll stay home.’”

Parents, Hofmann said, “have to be able to have these conversations at the individual level, assess risks as parents, and do the right thing. Let’s let our children witness that we can all do this together. Let’s not use them as instruments, either.”

The announcement about the school mask rule came during a wide-ranging news conference, in which Cox also defended his decision Wednesday to end extended unemployment benefits as a way to encourage Utahns back into the workforce. Cox also said he’s exploring the idea of holding some sort of prize drawing — but not a lottery — to encourage more people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Cox’s office on Thursday told state employees that, as of Saturday, they no longer have to wear face masks on the job. Cox issued an order to lift the rule, which he declared in an order March 31.

In an email to state employees, Cox’s chief of staff, Jon Pierpont, urged employees to get vaccinated, maintain health and safety precautions, and keep posting signage that lists the symptoms of COVID-19.

“We emphasize that termination of the mask requirement is not a prohibition against mask wearing,” the email continued. “Mask wearing continues to offer health benefits and is left to the discretion of each individual employee. Employees should respect the decisions of others regarding masks.”

Cox’s lifting of the mask rule for state employees comes two days after Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued an executive order requiring people wear masks while inside city facilities. Salt Lake County has had a similar rule since last summer, though Republicans on the County Council are urging Mayor Jenny Wilson to lift it.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson announced that the all-hands-on-deck approach state agencies have taken toward the pandemic is winding down. Employees assigned to the multi-agency “unified command,” she said, would gradually move back to their pre-pandemic jobs, and the lead role in the pandemic response would return to the Utah Department of Health.

UDOH’s website, coronavirus.utah.gov, and its data dashboard will continue for the foreseeable future, Henderson said, as will the state’s coronavirus-centered social media accounts.

Cox’s weekly media briefings will continue through the end of May, Henderson said. “Likely after that, we’re going to slow down the pace of these briefings,” she said.