Utah’s top elected education leaders decline to take a public position on masking in schools

State Board of Education members voted 6-8 against a resolution supporting face coverings.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah State Board of Education listens to comments during a public hearing on Thursday, July 22, 2021. The board on Friday declined to pass a resolution on masking in schools.

After debating for more than an hour Friday, the Utah Board of Education voted not to take any public position on masking in schools.

The board, which oversees K-12 education in the state, has largely been kept from setting the policy for face coverings in classrooms this year, which has instead been arbitrated by Utah lawmakers. Some members said they were frustrated over that.

“We’ve been cut out of this,” said member Scott Hansen. “I’m not OK with the status quo. It’s not proper for us to be silent.”

Hansen had put forward a resolution that would have had the board indicate its support for masks during the COVID-19 pandemic — though it stopped short of saying they should be required. And he wanted the board to state, too, that the decisions on mask mandates in classrooms should be made between school districts and their local county health departments, not other government officials. That would go against the process set up by the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Some members, though, doubted whether it was the board’s responsibility to weigh in and questioned what the resolution would accomplish. And others suggested that it would leave the board liable to lawsuits from parents.

“Does this expose us to litigation?” asked board Chair Mark Huntsman. “Does it put us at the forefront of lawsuits?”

Huntsman also noted that he represents more rural areas of the state in central and southwestern Utah. In one county, he said, there were no cases of COVID-19 for months. But students there were still required to wear masks last year under the statewide mandate.

“I certainly haven’t agreed with our state health department 100% of the time,” he added.

Jennie Earl, a conservative member of the board, added: “I’m not sure why we’re doing this in the first place.” And Kristan Norton, also a right-leaning member, said it should be her decision — not the state’s — if she wants to wear a mask while she teaches.

The resolution was defeated on a 6-8 vote, leaving the largest governing body most directly over education in the state silent on the issue.

The deflection there comes after Gov. Spencer Cox also decried the ban on school districts that prohibits them creating any mask requirements this year. That policy from the Utah Legislature, he said, is outdated.

But it’s not clear what action can or will be taken, especially without support from the state school board.

Currently under the law, 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 only district that has successfully gone through the approved legislative process is Grand County School District, which started with a 30-day mask mandate for K-6 students.

Summit and Tooele counties have both set a threshold for infection rates that would prompt each to require masks. Those have not yet been reached.

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.

Hansen said Friday that he disapproves of that process, which ultimately leaves health decisions in the hands of the government leaders instead of medical officials — and he specifically cited the decision by the Salt Lake County Council as a case where it went wrong. When masks were required last year, he added, Utah schools were able to stay open and were lauded as an example of how to make in-person education work during the pandemic.

“This year, we don’t have the same preventive health measures,” Hansen said.

But with the more contagious delta variant and kids under the age of 12 not yet eligible for the vaccine, Hansen said this school year will be — and already has proven — worse for spread.

Some experts anticipate four times as many cases in kids. Already, school-age children are making up about 20-25% of the new daily cases of COVID-19 in the state. And this week, the state health department reported the death of a girl between 15 and 17 years old.

“I think it’s important that we take a position now,” Hansen said. “We’re dealing with an emergency. And what health officials are recommending is not being implemented in schools because it’s not being supported by government officials.”

He was joined, in part, by board member Brent Strate, who argued it is the charge of the Utah Board of Education to keep students safe.

“I can’t think of anything more worthy of my vote than protecting the well-being of our students,” Strate said.

The resolution, though, was stripped of any specific mention of the coronavirus, with some members wanting to keep it open for future health crises. And even that version was voted down.