Salt Lake City superintendent says his only option to enforce mask mandate is to call police on students

Timothy Gadson said there’s no reason to give kids a criminal record for what he sees as misbehavior.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Salt Lake City School District superintendent Timothy Gadson tours East High School on the first day back for the fall session on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. Most students, according to the superintendent, have been wearing masks and he won't do more to enforce the requirement.

The superintendent over Salt Lake City schools says the only way to more strongly enforce the mayor’s K-12 mask mandate would be to call the police on students who are not complying. And he won’t do that.

“I just don’t think it should be the mission of an educational institution to criminalize misbehavior,” said Superintendent Timothy Gadson. “And that’s what it is: misbehavior.”

Gadson addressed ongoing concerns Tuesday night during Salt Lake City School District’s board of education meeting. Some parents, he said, have been worried that the district isn’t doing enough to make sure all kids are wearing masks in accordance with the citywide order from Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

Parents have been sent emails about the requirement. There are signs up around every school reminding students, too. And administrators and teachers are encouraged to offer masks to those whose faces aren’t covered.

That’s as far as enforcement goes, though, because the next step would be law enforcement.

Gadson said the district has been put in a difficult place. It is trying to follow the city’s emergency mask order to protect kids from COVID-19. And it also is trying to adhere to the law set by the Republican-dominated state Legislature that wants the choice to be left to parents and has banned districts from enacting their own mask mandates.

Under that state law, the district cannot keep any students from participating in school or in-person activities if they are not wearing a mask. So it is not an option to pull kids out of class or make them do school online for noncompliance — though one member of the school board still pushed for that.

The emergency order from the city does spell out possible consequences for those who refuse to cover up. That could include someone being charged with a class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail.

But Gadson said he won’t pursue that avenue — really the only discipline option left — because it would require calling in police, and he doesn’t want officers in schools for what he sees as a minor issue.

“We’re straddling the city order and state law,” he said.

And to call in police, Gadson added, could have long-term negative impacts on students, possibly giving them a criminal record and also making them less willing to learn and engage in school.

Board member Katherine Kennedy challenged the superintendent, though, saying they should do something to address students not wearing masks because it can put others at risk of catching the virus.

“It’s not just a matter of misbehavior,” she said. “It’s public health.”

She suggested the district remove students from class who are persistently refusing to wear a mask, and putting them in a separate room where they can still continue in-person learning. Kennedy said she believes that would allow the district to still adhere to state law. Gadson said he disagreed.

“We’re talking about students’ lives,” Kennedy responded. “We have students who are at high, high risk. It’s not about making people feel good if they don’t want to wear a mask.”

She mentioned the girl who recently died in Salt Lake County from the coronavirus. Health records indicate she was between the ages of 15 and 17, so she would have been in high school.

And students younger than age 12 are not yet eligible to get vaccinated, Kennedy added.

Gadson countered that, so far, those choosing not to mask have not been a major problem. Based on initial surveys of administrators sent by the district to observe in schools, he noted, 99.8% of students are adhering to the rules.

Several board members spoke in favor of the superintendent’s efforts to avoid criminalization. “We always have to be thinking of our kids,” said member Kristi Swett. “We don’t need to label anyone.”

The district, Gadson added, is also encouraging all of those old enough to get the vaccine. Kennedy suggested that they require it for those age 16 and up; the district can legally do that now that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been granted full authorization by the Food and Drug Administration.

The board didn’t take a vote on that issue Tuesday, but it is expected to take up the topic at its next meeting.

The mask mandate from the mayor came after the Salt Lake County Health Department had previously tried to issue a requirement for schools countywide following the process laid out by the Legislature. But that order, issued by its health director, Dr. Angela Dunn, was voted down 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.