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Salt Lake City mayor issues emergency mask mandate for students K-12

Salt Lake City School District has deflected rather than backed her request for its support.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students cross the street safely at Bonneville Elementary on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. Salt Lake City School District has now deferred to the mayor on whether to implement a mask mandate for kids during the 2021-2022 academic year.

Salt Lake City’s mayor will go forward with challenging the political stance of the Utah Legislature and the Salt Lake County Council by issuing an emergency order mandating masks for schools in the capital.

Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s decision came Friday morning, shortly after the Salt Lake City School District released a statement sidestepping her request for its support, saying it didn’t want to go against the process set up in a new law by backing her.

Mendenhall addressed that in her own comment, noting: “Unfortunately, and despite all the evidence that masks protect children and the adults who care for them, this issue has become politicized to the point that elected bodies across the country, and in the state of Utah, worry about retribution if they take a public stand as an organization.”

So now, without that backing, her order will start when kids return to classrooms in the city Tuesday. And it will apply to all students and staff at public, charter and private K-12 schools in the city’s boundaries.

Those inside of a school or a bus must be wearing a face mask, with a few exceptions — for lunchtime, sports activities and when communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.

Mendenhall said earlier this week that she believes she has the legal authority to require that kids wear masks. She has cited the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is much more contagious and causing more cases in children compared to last year. And those younger than age 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

With those conditions, she said, it is a health crisis and emergency, giving her the power to act.

“As mayor, it is my responsibility to do everything I can to keep our city and our school district from going down the tragic and dangerous path many others are already on,” she noted Friday, referring to schools opening across the country and facing a surge of new COVID-19 infections.

Her mandate will be in place, she said, for 30 days or until “we reach safer levels of transmission and immunity,” determined by health officials.

The Republican-dominated Utah Legislature has banned school districts from enacting their own mask mandates. Instead, any requirements for face coverings in schools must come as a recommendation from a county health department, with the local county governing body having the authority to repeal them.

It is unclear if lawmakers will attempt to override Mendenhall’s actions. The Legislature has given itself the authority under its “endgame” law banning mask mandates to veto what a county decides. And, if a school district were to defy the rule, lawmakers have the power to withhold funding, along with the Utah Board of Education.

On Friday, Senate President Stuart Adams issued a comment, but didn’t say specifically if action would be taken against Salt Lake City.

“Our priority is to keep students safe and ensure in-person learning options are available for K-12 students,” Adams said. “We will continue to monitor the data and oversee the situation not only in Salt Lake City but across the state.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson was unavailable for comment.

The only district that has successfully gone through the spelled-out process is southeastern Utah’s Grand County School District, which started with a 30-day mask mandate for K-6 students this week.

The superintendent there said she wanted the order to apply only to kids too young to get the vaccine. Mendenhall’s, though, covers all grade levels.

The Salt Lake County Health Department had previously tried to issue a mask requirement for K-6 students in schools countywide. But that order, issued by its health director, Dr. Angela Dunn, was voted down earlier this month by the County Council on party lines, with Republicans against it.

The requirement would have covered five public school districts — Salt Lake City, Jordan, Canyons, Granite and Murray — along with any charter schools in the county. Mendenhall previously voiced her support for the measure.

“It would have been much more impactful and would have prevented far more illness,” the mayor has previously said, “for the County Council to have supported Dr. Dunn’s mask order for schools countywide.”

She also said Friday that she regrets moving ahead without the backing of the school district. The mayor noted that some school board members there have privately told her that they want the order. But the district, overall, deflected in formally supporting the mandate.

“While acting without an official position of the board is not my preferred path,” Mendenhall said, “hanging in the balance of this decision is the health of our children, our community and our health care workers.”

In a new statement Friday morning before the mayor’s decision, the district said while it supports students wearing masks to limit the spread of COVID-19, it would punt to Mendenhall on taking any action.

District spokesman Jason Olsen wrote: “The Utah Legislature passed HB1007, which clearly states that local education agencies and schools ‘may not require an individual to wear a face covering to attend or participate in in-person instruction.’”

He added, in part, “We support the legislative process.”

But Mendenhall had signaled that she was willing to test that law. She was asking for the district’s support in doing so.

Still, the district said that it appreciates the mayor’s “unwavering concern for the health and safety of our students during this ongoing pandemic. Our students’ health and well-being have always been and remain our priority.”

The American Federation of Teachers’ chapter in Utah said it supports the mayor’s order. Union President Brad Asay said in a statement, “We believe she is acting in the best interest and safety of students. We have heard from faculty and staff in our public schools and they overwhelmingly support the wearing of masks.”

This isn’t the first time Mendenhall has challenged the state. The mayor previously acted independently on public health actions that state lawmakers had tried to reel in this year. She kept a citywide mask ordinance in place in April, for example, which also flew in the face of the state’s endgame law. Legislators did not challenge that move.

Salt Lake City School District, too, forged its own path at times during the pandemic. Last year, the district was the only one in the state to start the year entirely online as a precaution against COVID-19 — despite pressure from the state to return to in-person classes, including threats of decreased funding and withholding teacher bonuses.

The issue of masks in the classroom, though, 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 — backed by many doctors in Utah — say they are upset that one of the best tools to protect kids from COVID-19 would be limited while the highly contagious delta variant spreads.

Last year, there were roughly 40,000 coronavirus cases reported in schools, and that was when all children were required to wear masks. So far, since some schools started in Salt Lake County this month, there have been about 70.

— Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this story.

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