Students in Utah’s Tooele County will now have to mask up if there’s a school outbreak of COVID-19

The new policy sets thresholds for what will trigger a 30-day mask mandate.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A substitute teachers instructs 2nd graders at Northlake Elementary in the Tooele School District. The school district will be under a mask order from the county for when cases of the coronavirus reach a certain threshold.

Students in Tooele County will be required to wear masks if there’s an outbreak of COVID-19 at their school.

The new conditional policy was announced Thursday by the Tooele County Health Department in west-central Utah. It’s the latest in the state to issue a K-12 public health order after cases of the virus have significantly increased with the start of the new academic year.

“Children can and do get COVID-19 and are at risk for severe illness from the virus,” the department said in a statement posted to social media. “Even when the illness isn’t severe, children may suffer from long-term health effects and may spread the virus to other people.”

The department also noted that getting the virus “severely disrupts learning” for those in grades K-12 — with absences and missed extracurricular activities — and it wants to do what it can to limit spread.

Unless the County Council overturns it, the health order will mean that all students in a particular school will need to wear a mask after the department determines there has been an outbreak there. For schools with fewer than 1,500 students, that will mean 30 students testing positive in a two-week window. For those with more than 1,500 students, it will be 2% of the population.

Those are the same numbers that require a school to also start the state’s Test to Stay program. In that scenario, students get tested for COVID-19. If they test positive or their parents don’t want them to get tested, they must stay home for 10 days to quarantine. If they test negative, they can continue going to classes in person.

Now, in Tooele, those who stay in school will also need to wear a mask under a 30-day mandate that will be triggered by the outbreak.

This will impact about 25,000 students in the county, most of whom attend Tooele County School District, which has reopened for in-person learning this year.

The health department said Thursday that it issued the policy after also seeing the low rate of vaccination for students ages 12 to 17 in the county. State records indicate about 37% of that population there has gotten immunized against COVID-19.

(The highest percentage of vaccination for that age range, by jurisdiction, in the state is in Davis County with 52%. The lowest is in the areas served by the TriCounty Health Department in eastern Utah — which includes Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties — at 15.3%.)

Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.

“That is why it is so important to add additional layers of protection,” the Tooele County Health Department said in its statement. “Wearing a face mask can significantly decrease the chance a person or child will spread the virus to others or be infected by the virus. Wearing face masks and getting vaccinated reduces the spread of COVID-19 and is an added layer of protection for children in schools during an outbreak.”

This year, the Utah Legislature banned school districts from creating any requirements for masks — even though they are strongly recommended by health experts. Instead, any face covering mandates 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 Tooele County Council has not yet stated a position on the order.

The only district that has successfully gone through the approved process is Grand County School District, which started with a 30-day mask mandate for K-6 students. Summit County has said it will require masks for kids in elementary classrooms if infection rates get above 2% — similar to what Tooele is doing now.

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.

Since then, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has put into place an emergency order for masks in city schools for students K-12. It’s unclear, though, if that will be allowed to stand; some lawmakers have already discussed challenging her. The Legislature also gave itself the authority to veto any county’s mask mandate for schools.