‘Let’s not wait until we have children in the hospital’: A group of Utah parents rally for a mask mandate in schools

The parents are calling on the Utah Legislature to drop their ban that prohibits schools from requiring masks.

Katie Nelson’s reason for pushing for COVID-19 safeguards in Utah schools is printed on the very fabric of her face mask: a picture that shows her 4-year-old son, Xavey.

In the photo, her toddler smiles from inside a plastic Fisher Price car.

“It’s just that simple,” Nelson said.

She wore the specially made face covering at a rally Friday morning, joining other parents in pleading for the state to protect their kids as they return to the classroom later this month.

They say Utah lawmakers have threatened the safety of their children by banning masks mandates in public schools. And they’re calling on the Legislature to reconsider — especially as cases increase across the state — and require that K-12 students wear a mask when indoors.

“Masks work. We have the data,” one mom shouted to cheers from the crowd.

The other side of a loud debate

It was a different kind of rally than the many that have been held in Utah, predominantly a red state, in response to the pandemic. In those others, conservative groups of parents have usually protested masks, burned face coverings or ripped them apart. Some have suggested any requirement to wear one infringes on their rights and harms their kids.

It’s become a showdown of politics across the nation, dividing sides over a piece of cloth.

In contract, outside the offices of the Utah Board of Education on Friday, everyone had on a mask. The attendees held signs encouraging them, like “Masks are necessary” and “Require masks.” And they quoted from scientific studies.

They talked about their fears of the virus spreading among the youngest students in school, which experts say will certainly happen with the more contagious delta variant. They said they’re worried because most of their children are under age 12, too young for the vaccine, and some have conditions that would make catching it much worse. And they shared personal stories of who they’re trying to protect, like Xavey.

Nelson said Xavey is supposed to start preschool with Canyons School District in a few weeks. And now she’s not sure if she wants to send him.

He is blind and could benefit from working with specialists in person. But Nelson is wondering if it would be better to keep him home, though, because he also has a history of respiratory illness. She feels she doesn’t want to gamble with his health. Kids, too, get sick from the virus, doctors have said, and it can have lifelong impacts.

“The riskiest thing we can do is send him to school,” Nelson said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Katie Nelson participates in a rally advocating mask use in schools outside the Utah Board of Education building, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. Nelson worries that her son, seen on her mask, a preschooler with health conditions, may not be protected from contracting coronavirus if masks are not mandated in schools.

Parents balance health with education

The parents who rallied Friday say they feel stuck. They want their kids back in the classroom to learn, but it feels more dangerous than last year when masks were required and there wasn’t a new variant. Experts say that holding class in person went relatively smoothly for the state then because of universal mask wearing.

Now, overall cases in Utah are double what they were last fall. And for school-aged kids, those ages 5 to 14, they are 3 1/2 times higher.

Physicians have also spoken up in favor of masks in schools, saying they’re frustrated that the Legislature would ban any mandates. With their hands tied, the Utah Department of Health is only able to encourage that all kids and teachers wear one. That follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which adds that studies shows masks are more effective at preventing the spread of the virus when a majority of people have them on. When they’re optional and fewer people choose to wear one, they’re less protective.

But the right-leaning Legislature doesn’t seem like it will budge on requiring them in classrooms.

“We just want leadership to rely on the public health and medical experts,” said Judy Neil.

Her daughter, Torah, is 10 years old and going into fifth grade at Morningside Elementary in Salt Lake City. Torah, who wore a mask with a dog face on it, said Friday that she’s nervous about going back to the classroom. “I don’t want to play a game of infection,” she said.

Neil said that she’s planning to have her daughter double mask with a filter for extra protection because she can’t get vaccinated yet. The young girl held a sign that said, “Protect your friends.”

Amy McKasson, a registered nurse, also plans to send her kids to school in masks. Her two oldest, ages 16 and 14, have gotten vaccinated. But her two youngest, 9 and 7, aren’t able to yet.

The McKasson kids did school virtually all of last year to stay safe. McKasson doesn’t want to do that again. Her children need to be with their peers. But she wants the state to take what she sees as reasonable precautions to keep them safe.

Pleading with the Legislature to act

In Utah, under the new law, a requirement for a mask mandate can only come for a county health department. And many are reluctant to do so. The Salt Lake County Council heard from a flood of residents this week opposed to a requirement.

In some states, such as Arizona and Florida, school districts have decided to defy their state’s similar bans on masks mandates. Meanwhile, a judge in Arkansas said the state couldn’t carry out outlawing mask requirements. It’s unclear if any of that will happen in Utah.

But parents are asking for the Legislature to act before that. Chris Phillips, a parent of three who organized the rally, said lawmakers should hold a special session prior to school starting to address concerns. He drafted a letter with signatures from 500 parents calling for action. And they held their meeting outside the Utah Board of Education to ask for members’ support.

“Let’s not wait until we have children in the hospital,” he said.

Christy Phillips, who is married to Chris, teaches in Canyons School District. She said she knows teachers and students who got sick last year — even with the mask requirement. One staffer at her school ended up on long-term leave to recover.

She questions why the state wouldn’t want to mandate masks now, when things are worse with the virus spreading.