With students returning for the first day of classes Tuesday, Salt Lake City School District has instructed its administrators to enforce the K-12 mask mandate issued by the mayor — for now — as questions persist over whether it will hold.
Superintendent Timothy Gadson said the district intends to comply with the requirement. But, he acknowledged, it’s been put in a complicated position: caught between a Democratic mayor exercising emergency authority she feels is needed to keep kids safe from COVID-19 and a Republican-dominated Legislature that doesn’t think she has the power and wants the choice to be left to parents.
“We’re seeing how that goes,” Gadson said from behind his own face mask as he toured East High and welcomed students back.
The district is, in essence, in political quicksand, and could be sued by parents on either side of the issue. Gadson said the district hasn’t yet gone to the courts for advice, but it might in the future to help find some solid footing.
“We are exploring our options,” he added.
District spokesman Jason Olsen also noted: “We know the Legislature is looking at this order, as are others, and we are following these reviews.”
For the time being, principals have sent out emails informing parents about the mask order from Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. And the district provided guidance to administrators — instead of leaving it up to each school — that encourages them to place signs around schools about the requirement and to offer masks to students who aren’t wearing them.
At East High, a flyer on the front door with the school’s leopard mascot notes, “Face coverings required.” Below it is a basket of extra medical masks for the taking.
The policy stops, though, at forcing anyone to wear one. That’s the same approach the district took last year, when masks were required in all public schools by the state.
In the internal letter sent across the district, provided to The Salt Lake Tribune, it suggests: “In the event of a refusal, inform them of the mayor’s emergency order, advise them of benefits of wearing a mask, advise them that masks are available if they change their mind.” It stresses that no one should be shamed, humiliated or antagonized for not having a face mask.
And there is to be no discipline. East High Principal Pam Pedersen also confirmed there won’t be any punishments for students who don’t wear a mask. No student will be sent home.
Pedersen acknowledged that the enforcement is loose but said school leaders are trying to do what they can in a difficult situation. And the district was already in the crossfire last year for being the only one in the state to start the year entirely online.
“We’re not going to fuss,” she said. “You know the Legislature is going to overturn it. It’s going to change and change again.”
At East High on Tuesday, nearly every student did wear a mask. And most said they liked having the requirement.
“Because it’s mandatory, I think that helped so that more kids are wearing them,” said senior Alejandra Aguilar.
“Yeah, it lets us be back for our senior year,” added her friend, Ana Jaime, as they sat in the lunchroom.
As seniors, most of their high school experience has been touched by the coronavirus. When they were sophomores, schools first shut down in March 2020. During their junior year, most events were canceled and much of their education was done online in the district.
Now, they’re back in the classroom and happy to be there. Signs across the school highlighted the return of the hallmarks of high schools, like homecoming and football games.
“I think it’s a good choice,” added junior Pamela Hernandez, who wore a stretchy gray mask.
All three of the students are vaccinated. Hernandez said she got used to not wearing a mask after she was immunized, but now with the contagious delta variant spreading, she’s returned to covering her face, even when it’s a little uncomfortable.
“If we took them off, then there’s a higher chance of getting COVID,” she said.
The variant was also behind Mendenhall’s decision to create the mask mandate. And the mayor tweeted Tuesday morning about sending her own child off to school in the city wearing a mask.
“To all the Salt Lake City School parents who took the same journey I did today, I hope you did it feeling confident that the health and wellbeing of your children are being looked after,” she wrote. Some parents responded with their appreciation.
Mendenhall issued her order last week. She has said that she believes she has the legal authority to require that students wear masks in schools within city boundaries — particularly as those younger than age 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine and more kids have been sick with the virus this fall than last year.
With those conditions, she said it’s a health crisis and emergency, giving her the power to act.
The district has sidestepped offering any formal support for her mandate, though. And some lawmakers have suggested that she doesn’t have the authority, as a city leader, over public schools — though there’s little they can do now. They say they may try to rein in the power of city mayors in the future, and that kind of potential payback has members of the City Council worried.
Earlier this year, the Legislature had 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.
The only district that has successfully gone through the spelled out process is Grand County School District in southeastern Utah. Summit County said it will issue a mask mandate for students if transmission rates go above 2%.
The Salt Lake County Health Department had previously tried to issue a mask requirement for 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 and many parents railing with them.
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.
Now, the mandate from Mendenhall applies only to Salt Lake City School District and any charters within the capital’s boundaries.
District board of education member Mohamed Baayd said he’s happy that the mayor stepped in. He’s got three kids in the district, including two daughters at East High.
“I am so proud of the mayor for putting herself out there and taking bold action in the name of safety,” he said Tuesday. “Our 20,000 plus students know of the mandate in the district. And we will obey the law where we can.”