To safely reopen schools, Utah needs to get comfortable with masks, panel says

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah places signs around campus to encourage people to wear masks on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, as coronavirus cases continue to rise in the state of Utah.

To get kids and teachers back in classrooms again this fall, school districts will need to take drastic measures to protect everyone’s safety. And a panel of experts all agree, the best way for all Utahns to help is by wearing face masks.

“This is like a wildfire going on. If everybody had a mask on … life can go on,” said Dr. Kashif Memon, an infectious disease specialist at Jordan Valley Medical Center and Steward Health Care Group. “It’s a simple trade off.”

Memon joined Sydnee Dickson, Utah state Superintendent of Public Instruction; Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association; and Laney Benedict, president of the Utah Parent Teacher Association, in an online forum Wednesday hosted by The Salt Lake Tribune.

Earlier, a Utah County Commission meeting demonstrated how controversial and political masks have become in the state. Residents crowded the meeting to express disapproval over the governor’s mandate for their kids to wear masks at school. Commissioners ended the meeting early when attendees would not practice social distancing protocols.

But the science shows masks work, the panelist said, and they might be Utah’s only hope for the coming school year.

“There are not multiple opinions on wearing masks. There’s science and there’s politics. Masks work,” Matthews said. “Why would we subject kids and educators in classrooms to anything other than the most safe environment [possible]?”

Dickson said she understood some children with autism, sensory issues and other disabilities have conditions that can be exacerbated by masks. She’s open to an exemption in those cases, but she supports wearing masks for other students and adults.

“You can’t have kids moving through halls without masks on. You can’t have students entering and exiting where you’ve got density without masks on,” Dickson said.

Even if students are spaced apart in a classroom, Dickson added, respiratory droplets carrying the coronavirus can linger in the air for nearly 15 minutes.

[Watch: Mother Jones reporter speaks about her ‘terrifying’ experience with masks at one Utah mall]

While kids will need to remove masks to eat and might be able to take them off outdoors during recess, it’s important for students, families and teachers to understand when a mask needs to be worn.

“Kids need mask breaks, teachers need mask breaks,” Dickson said. “But you do that in a safe way.”

When the pandemic emerged in early spring and schools began to close, educators and students scrambled to adapt to online learning. In one large high school, 800 students disconnected from school for more than a month due to language barriers and not having access to broadband.

Still, schools expected all these challenges to be temporary. Then shops, salons and restaurants in Utah reopened this summer, and cases began to rise.

“Now as we come back to the fall, we’re trying to reimagine what school looks like,” Dickson said.

Face masks can help Utah get control of its COVID-19 cases once again without another shutdown, Memon said. But it will take a concerted effort from everyone over the rest of the summer to create safe conditions for Utah’s educational and economic systems in the fall.

“I think we just have to watch for the next two to three weeks which way the numbers are going in our state,” Memon said. Otherwise, “we might need to reconsider the whole idea.”

Benedict, the PTA president, encouraged parents to do their own research on the coronavirus and the benefits of face masks.

“I think getting information just from social media and not going to, maybe, the CDC or some of the things that our state health department has put out, it creates fear,” she said. “And people don’t function in fear.”

For information from the discussion, including how teachers and students will be monitored for symptoms, where funding for safety changes is coming from and how districts are developing their own customized reopening plans, watch the “Trib Talk” town hall in the video player below or visit facebook.com/saltlaketribune and select “Live” from the navigation menu.