Mask rules in Utah schools would be up to districts and health officials — not the governor — under ‘local control’ bill

Districts and charters could make the call for their students and staff after consulting with their local health department.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sen. Ronald Winterton, R-Roosevelt, speaks in support of his bill regarding school mask mandates, in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.

It would be up to Utah’s individual school districts — in coordination with local health departments — to decide whether they want to require their students and staff to wear masks, under a new bill proposed Thursday.

The measure, SB187, is a response to the statewide COVID-19 mask mandate issued for K-12 schools by then-Gov. Gary Herbert last July, which extends through the end of this school year.

Sen. Ronald Winterton, R-Roosevelt and the sponsor of the bill, said no one with the governor’s office or the state health department consulted the local school districts or charters before issuing that public order. Many administrators, he said, were left feeling frustrated and powerless.

And the lawmaker believes they should be the ones to have the say on what happens on their own school grounds.

“It’s trying to put this decision back with the local school districts where it belongs,” he said during a committee hearing Thursday. “Otherwise, why are we electing a school board if we’re not going to let them do their job?”

The original draft of the bill said districts wouldn’t have to follow any mandates or public health orders issued by the state requiring masks in public areas. Winterton offered a substitute, though, that softened the language.

Under the version that passed with a 5-2 vote Thursday, the governor would have to reach out to school districts before issuing any new orders. And, though a school district would have the final say on mask policy, its leaders would be required to consult with the local health department before making a decision.

The idea is that areas of the state experiencing less transmission of the coronavirus wouldn’t need to have their students and teachers wear face coverings, if they didn’t want to.

“They will make the best decision for their area,” Winterton said, noting he wants it to be a collaboration with schools, the government and health officials. But the governor, he said, should not be the one to make the decision.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox’s office did not provide comment.

One of the biggest concerns with the state mask mandate, Winterton added, is that many districts felt like it didn’t allow for exceptions. The order from the governor didn’t allow for students to wear plastic face shields as an alternative to a mask — because they’re less effective at stopping transmission — which some districts had planned to allow. That includes the Alpine School District in Utah County, where parents protested the mask mandate.

A mother testified during the committee meeting Thursday that her 11-year-old son suffered an allergic reaction to wearing a mask that he was required to have on at school. His face and eyes swelled, and she took him to the emergency room for anaphylactic shock.

Tristan Trout, of Vernal, shared photos of her son’s face, showing a bright red rash around his mouth. It got so bad, she added, that “you couldn’t tell the difference between his neck and chin.”

(Screenshot) Tristan Trout shared photos of her son, who had an allergic reaction to his mask, during a Utah legislative committee hearing on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.

He was out of school for a week. Trout washed his masks, hoping that would make a difference, but it didn’t. He ended up having the same reaction when he wore a mask on returning to class.

“It is a health hazard for him to wear a mask,” she said.

Trout eventually pulled her son out of school because he couldn’t wear one. But, she added, that hasn’t been an ideal solution. She’s a single mom and works six days a week; she hasn’t been able to help her son with homework, and he’s fallen behind in class. “I just don’t know what to do,” she added.

Winterton, who had coordinated with Trout to speak in favor of the bill, said cases like that drove him to file the bill.

But there are exemptions already allowed under the state’s K-12 mask mandate for personal health reasons.

Michelle Hofmann, who has recently been named deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, spoke against SB187, saying the situation with Trout’s son is already covered in the rules. If the district or the family didn’t know about that, she added, the issue is more about communication. But kids with asthma or allergies, for instance, aren’t required to wear a mask.

She supports keeping the statewide order for masks in K-12 in place to help reduce transmission of the virus overall. Without it, she fears, schools would experience more outbreaks and it would be unsustainable for them to remain open.

“We have serious concerns,” Hofmann said. “This jeopardizes the safety of in-person learning.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Hoffman, from the Department of Health speaks about the bill regarding school mask mandates, in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021.

Tony Zani, a K-12 literacy coach, said he feels more comfortable teaching with students and staff wearing the masks. He added that he believes a health order should be up to a health officials — not school boards that don’t have the same expertise to respond to a pandemic.

“Health orders shouldn’t be done by popular vote,” he added.

Sen. Jani Iwamoto, D-Holladay, was the only senator on the committee to speak out against the measure, though Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, joined her in voting “no.”

Iwamoto asked why the state should lift any mask requirement for schools at the same time that it’s pushing for more students to return to learn in person. Masks, she said, make that process much safer.

She also questioned whether the Legislature really supports local control. This bill, she said, would let districts decide. But lawmakers effectively pressured Salt Lake City School District to reopen after it had wanted to continue with virtual instruction because the state didn’t like that choice.

“The Legislature came down on them for that decision,” Iwamoto said.

Winterton didn’t address the argument around Salt Lake City. But he said his intention with the bill is not to tell anyone not to wear a mask — or even to discourage their use, especially in hot zones for the virus.

He said it’s about letting districts know they have more options, such as making masks optional or creating more exemptions for something like religious beliefs. And those in rural areas, where COVID-19 isn’t spreading as much, wouldn’t have to be as strict. He specifically pointed to Daggett County, which he represents, where there are only 250 kids in the district and most classes have about 12 or 15 students in them. The risk there, he said, is much lower and so is the transmission.

Requiring the mask mandate to be applied unilaterally across the state, he added, doesn’t make sense. Also, if the bill passes through both the Senate and House and is signed by the governor, it wouldn’t take effect until May, at the earliest, he said. That means it wouldn’t apply to this school year and many people in the state would have the vaccine before it would start.

While they spoke, Winterton and several Republican lawmakers on the committee did not wear masks or pulled them down Thursday.

The bill originally faced opposition from the Utah Medical Association, the Utah Academy of Family Physicians and the Utah Education Association. But the groups have since said they would no longer fight it after the changes Winterton made to require school districts to make decisions with their local health departments.