3 Utah school districts now allow students to skip masks, based on their parents’ judgment

School mask exemption movement gaining steam even as educators, health officials worry about the risk of coronavirus spread to students, teachers and the community.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Children rip up a large paper mask at a rally protesting government mask mandates at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020.

Some Utah school districts have taken the issue of whether students should have to wear masks and put it in parents’ hands.

Within the last week, three districts — Kane County, San Juan and Iron County — and one Orem charter school have stopped requiring doctor’s notes for students seeking a mask exemption in their schools.

Instead, parents need only sign a form vouching that their children suffer from a medical condition that inhibits their ability to wear a mask. Supporters in the Davis, Weber and Alpine districts, among others, have called for the same approach, at rallies and in letters and calls to administrators.

Groups who pushed for the changes, such as Utah Parents United, celebrated them as a return of agency to parents and students.

Those who oppose loosening school mask restrictions, however, say districts are dividing classrooms and communities and putting children, teachers and their loved ones at risk. And, by doing so with less than two months of classes left, they may be extending the need for kids to wear masks into next school year.

“We all want the best for our kids,” said Dr. Andy Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health. “And what is best for our kids ultimately is to have a safe and healthy end of the school year. We’re in the final stretch. … And that means keeping doing things that work, and that includes, first and foremost, masking.”

End of statewide mask mandate became a turning point

Parents have been asking for more leniency in school mask restrictions since in-person education resumed. That pressure picked up on April 10, however, when Utah’s statewide mask mandate ended for everyone except students and groups of 50 or more.

The following Monday, protests were held at schools and district offices across the state. The next day, the Kane County district announced it would be dropping its doctor’s note requirement.

“Our group isn’t really pushing for the abolition of masks in schools. We’re pushing for choice,” Dr. Lyle Mason, an orthopedic surgeon and Utah Parents United board member, said at a rally in Provo. He added, “If parents want their children to wear masks in school, they certainly have that right. But we believe that parents should also have the right to ask that their children not be required to wear masks.”

Kane County made its move after consulting with its legal counsel, superintendent Ben Dalton said in an email to The Salt Lake Tribune.

The public health order governing masks in schools — which has had the same language regarding exemptions since March 2020 — says schools can, but don’t have to, require a medical directive to grant an exemption.

Still, Utah Department of Health spokesperson Charla Haley said, “The order does not allow for parents to grant face mask exemptions.”

Yet that appears to be exactly what has happened.

Dalton said in an email last Monday that 3% of the Kane County student body had parental consent to receive an exemption. On Thursday, that number had risen to 34%. Ron Nielson, the superintendent of the San Juan district, told KUTV-Channel 2 that about 20 kids in each of the Monticello-area schools and at least 30 in the Blanding-area schools were exempted in the first two days after the policy change.

Parents like Amber Bowman, whose son attends elementary school in Kanab, said their children reported headaches, difficulty breathing and learning impediments they attributed to mask wearing.

“I watched my children struggle and suffer with medical and emotional conditions wearing masks,” Bowman said at the Utah Parents United rally. “And I knew I could no longer allow that to take place.”

Pavia wondered if those kinds of reactions were caused by masks. He said it is more likely they were byproducts of the stress of attending school during a pandemic or anxiety attacks. He said exemptions were meant to be used only in rare instances, such as for those with severe lung disease or ear or jaw deformities. Even in inpatient psychiatric facilities that treat children, mask policies are in place, he said.

“There are very, very, very few conditions,” he said, “that medically make it inappropriate or dangerous for a child to wear a mask.”

And, he said, in most cases the danger of not wearing one far outweighs those issues.

COVID-19 hasn’t hit kids as hard

Transmission among kids within schools is somewhat rare. And according to the UDOH’s coronavirus tracking site, most of the districts that have adopted the change in policy have had few outbreaks. The Iron district has been hit the hardest, with five active cases and 139 total. Kane County currently has no active cases and has had 30 cases total.

San Juan draws many students from the Navajo Nation, which saw one of the nation’s highest per capita case counts early in the pandemic. The Navajo Nation still has a comprehensive mask mandate and no in-person school within its boundaries, while San Juan has had — according to UDOH tracking — just 31 cases total and none in the last two weeks.

Those in favor of the change argue those low numbers are why masks aren’t needed anymore.

Pavia countered that masks are the reason that the numbers are low. He pointed to a U. Health study of elementary schools in Salt Lake County that found that of the 735 people who came in contact with the virus, only five of them caught it. Four of those had issues with mask use.

And while kids are generally less likely to become severely ill, Pavia pointed out that contracting the virus also makes them susceptible to Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children. MIS-C typically sets in a month after a child has contracted the virus and can cause heart dysfunction, stroke and paralysis. He said nearly 100 children in Utah have developed MIS-C and at least one has died from it.

“You don’t want your child to be the one who draws the short straw and has a very severe complication of COVID,” he said.

The students, who aren’t eligible for a vaccine unless they are 16 or older, aren’t the only ones exposed to increased risks. Students can spread the virus in their communities — in the U. Health study, most of the five who caught COVID-19 spread it to family members or to their teachers, bus drivers or school cooks.

Communities divided

Several school faculty members and parents told The Salt Lake Tribune they felt blindsided by the change in policy in their district. All asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs or suffering other backlash.

“There was no survey. There was no sign out. There was no notification,” said one Kane County district educator who learned of the policy change through the school’s letter to the community.

Superintendent Dalton said the district has “taken input from faculty (and) staff on this issue throughout the year” and noted that vaccines have been made available to those on staff who want them.

That does little for staff members who have medical reasons for not getting vaccinated or, for example, are being treated for cancer, which can render the vaccine ineffective. In messages to The Tribune and since-deleted Facebook posts about the policy, educators in several districts worried about bringing the virus home to immunocompromised loved ones.

And even teachers who don’t have those concerns could feel burdened by keeping the peace in classrooms divided between the masked and the unmasked.

One San Juan district parent is already feeling the societal split.

“One of my children said only four children came to his class, including himself, in a mask yesterday,” the parent said in an email to The Tribune. “They are leaving children who no longer feel safe with the only option of choosing homeschool one month before school ends for the year.”

Parents in favor of the move say they have waited long enough to be able to remove their masks. But Pavia cautioned that if more districts and more parents begin granting students exemptions, the homeschooling could last for more than a month. It could bleed into next fall.

“Allowing [COVID-19] to spread rampant in schools is a recipe for prolonging the pandemic, prolonging the shutdowns, along with all the things that we’re so tired of,” he said. “Masks are a very safe and easy measure that has proven very effective at allowing kids to go to school in person, which is what we all care about.”

Tribune reporter Zak Podmore contributed to this article.