A Utah middle school throws a mask-burning to ‘celebrate’ last day of state-imposed mandate

By order of Gov. Spencer Cox, districts can stop requiring masks for the last week of the school year.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Spencer Cox removes his mask at a news conference on Feb. 25, 2021. Cox issued an executive order on May 13, 2021, that said Utah school districts could stop requiring masks for the last week of the school year — which is next week for Bear River Middle School in Tremonton, where faculty and students marked the shift with a celebratory mask burning Friday after school.

On the last day that his students at Bear River Middle School in Tremonton were required by state law to wear face masks, principal Eldon Petersen decided it was time to mark the milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic — by holding a mask burning.

“We wanted to celebrate the fact that we had endured, and did the best we could to support each other,” Petersen said Friday, shortly after the after-school burning. “We wanted to have a celebration that it had come to an end, and the students felt like they had a little freedom again.”

At 2:40 p.m. Friday, during the last 10 minutes of the school day, Petersen had three barrels set up outside the school. “I gave a little spiel to the kids, to thank them for their cooperation and help and support and endurance,” he said. “Then we had them start burning masks.”

The event, Petersen said, “was very positive and upbeat. We didn’t try to make any political statement out of it at all. That was not our intent. We just wanted a good hygienic way to get rid of those things.”

Petersen added, “Good things come from fire, like hardened steel.”

Under an executive order that Gov. Spencer Cox issued on May 13, Utah school districts could opt to have their students, faculty and staff go without masks for the last week of the school year. For many districts, including the Box Elder School District that includes Petersen’s school, the year ends next Friday, June 4 — so they will not require masks all next week.

After Cox’s order, most districts opted to go without masks either this week — if their school year ended this Friday — or next week. The one holdout is the Salt Lake City School District, where masks will be required through the last day of school, on June 4.

Cox’s order was the last statewide mask rule in place during the pandemic. The first was issued by Cox’s predecessor, Gov. Gary Herbert, in November — and it covered all Utahns who gathered in public places. The Utah Legislature passed a bill during its 2021 session to lift that broad order on April 10, a date Cox’s office negotiated with legislators. That bill made an exception for public schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade, to the end of the school year.

On May 19, in a one-day special session, the Legislature passed a bill that would bar public schools and universities from forcing students to wear masks. Cox signed the bill Thursday. The law makes it unlikely any Utah schools will have to follow a mask mandate when new school year starts this fall.

Masks have been a point of contention at Bear River Middle School all year, Petersen said. “We’ve had parents who were mad at us for wearing them,” Petersen said. “And we’ve had other parents who said they wouldn’t send their kids to school if we weren’t wearing them.”

Bear River Middle dealt with COVID-19 cases just before Thanksgiving, Petersen said, with about a third of the school’s students going into quarantine. Teachers made provisions for virtual learning, and some students worked from home — though most, Petersen said, attended school in person.

“I feel like I’ve been the mask police for most of the year, and that doesn’t bode well for positive relationships,” Petersen said, adding that it’s difficult “to build relationships with kids like you normally would because you can’t see their face and relate to them.”

It will be “nice to see their faces for the last week of school,” Petersen said.