For now, this southern Utah school district will have the state’s only mask mandate for students

Grand County School District sought approval for a K-6 requirement from the county health department and county commission.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A group of young kids explores the extensive trails outside of Moab, Utah, on Monday April 12, 2021. K-6 students in Grand County will be required to wear a mask when they return to school this fall.

So far, a southern Utah school district is the only one in the state planning to start the year with a mask mandate for K-6 students.

Grand County School District, which is centered in Moab, announced the requirement for students and staff in a memo Monday. It is set to take effect when kids return to the classroom Thursday for the first day of school.

“We stand at a crossroads and are choosing to take the path most likely resulting in safer, healthier students,” wrote Superintendent Taryn Kay in the letter to parents. “We owe it to our children to protect them. Each student, every day.”

The 30-day mask mandate was created by the Southeast Utah Health Department at the request of the school district. And it has the support of the seven-member Grand County Commission, which leans Democratic and voted unanimously to accept it during their meeting Tuesday. Both the health department and the commission signed onto the letter.

Their approval is required under the law for school districts in Utah to have a requirement for masks this year.

Grand County Commission Chair Mary McGann said three of the commissioners have children in elementary school. And McGann has grandkids that age. She said she did the count ahead of time and expected it would pass.

“Looking around the country, we realized the way this variant is affecting children is much more severe than the original virus,” said McGann, who is also a retired teacher. “And we have vulnerable kids here that we want to protect.”

Grand County is ranked as a “very high” transmission area currently, and has had more than 1,500 cases and four deaths total during the pandemic, for a population of about 10,000. There are also six active pediatric cases of COVID-19 there.

McGann noted that the county, which includes Arches National Park, is currently entering into its busy fall tourist season, and she fears an influx of new cases with that.

“I know there are going to be some people who are very angry with us,” she said. “But there are going to be a lot of people who are very happy and relieved.”

The Republican-majority state Legislature has banned school districts from enacting their own mask mandates. They must, instead, come as a recommendation from a county health department and be voted on by a county governing body, as Grand County has done. The district also has backing from Moab Regional Hospital.

The mandate there comes shortly after Dr. Angela Dunn, the health director for Salt Lake County, had issued a similar order last week for students K-6 to wear masks while in classrooms in Utah’s most populous county.

But that effort was quickly shot down two days later — and before school started — by the county council on a 6-3 vote that fell along party lines, with Republicans against a mask requirement. A large anti-mask crowd filled the council chamber and overflow area, at times heckling Democrats who spoke in support of face coverings for children.

On Tuesday afternoon, however, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall raised the possibility of issuing a mask mandate for schools in the capital city based on her mayoral powers.

The issue of masks in the classroom has divided the state and country.

Here, there have been politically warring groups of parents, with one in favor of prohibiting schools from requiring masks and “allowing freedom.”

Parents on the other side — which has been backed by many doctors in Utah — say they’re upset that one of the best tools to protect kids from COVID-19 would be limited while the highly contagious delta variant spreads. Already, Utah’s children’s hospital is full before classes have really begun.

So Grand County now moves forward alone, with no other districts or counties in the state signaling their intentions to attempt a mask mandate. Few others in the state lean to the left and would likely have the support to pass a requirement. The other districts under the Southeast Utah Health Department in Emery and Carbon counties will also not move forward with a mandate.

Meanwhile, in other states, though, including Florida and Texas, some districts have defied similar bans on mask mandates in schools and went forward with one anyway.

Kay had told The Salt Lake Tribune last week that she didn’t intend to defy Utah leaders if she could avoid it and felt comfortable getting the support of the health department and commission. But she doesn’t support the ban on schools requiring masks.

“I am hopeful that the Legislature will ultimately rethink their law prohibiting mask mandates,” she said, “before any Utah children are hospitalized or worse with a serious case of COVID that may have been prevented if a mask mandate were allowed.”

The Legislature also still has the power to overturn the Grand County requirement if it decides to.

Kay said in her letter Monday, though, that she was worried about sending students there back to school without masks, especially with those younger than 12 years old unable to get the vaccine yet. She said she’s watched as as other school districts have reopened without masks, as more young people have gotten sick and as hospitals have filled.

“Some have even had to arrange for their patients to be flown out of state to find a bed,” Kay wrote. “Imagine the difficulty and heartache that would pose to parents.”

She said the district weighed that concern with being selective in requiring masks. So the mandate for Grand County School District will only apply to those under the age of 12, only in grades K-6. Those in junior high and high school will be able to decide whether or not they want to cover their faces.

Kay added: “By enacting a mandatory indoor K-6 mask mandate, we are collectively choosing to set GCSD students on a positive path so that they can continue to benefit from in-person schooling, and even more importantly, to have increased protection from a deadly virus.”

McGann added that it will also only apply indoors and on buses. Students outside at recess will not need to wear a mask.

The mask requirement, as detailed by the state law, is temporary and lasts for 30 days. Kay said the district and health department will be watching case counts in schools and “if necessary, the mask mandate will be renewed.”

She added that once a vaccine becomes available for those 5 to 12 years old, “it is likely there will be no further mask mandate.” Approval for a vaccine for that age group is expected sometime this fall.

Utah saw nearly 40,000 COVID-19 cases last year in schools, when masks were required for all grades.