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To help keep Utah kids “as safe as possible” from COVID-19, Gov. Spencer Cox promised in August to provide more than 1 million masks for K-12 students, both surgical-style ones and higher quality KN95 masks in small and large sizes.
As of Tuesday, 2.2 million masks had been shipped to schools, according Tom Hudachko, spokesperson for Utah Department of Health. Of those, 310,000 were pediatric-sized cloth masks, 700,000 were pediatric-sized three-layer surgical masks, and the rest were KN95s, he said.
But low demand for the masks means some Salt Lake County school districts have left them in storage.
“I’d say on any given day, average, across the building, I have about a fourth of my kids wearing masks,” John Paul Sorensen, principal at Neil Armstrong Academy in West Valley City, said Tuesday.
Before the school year began, the state Legislature banned school districts from creating their own mask mandates. Instead, Neil Armstrong Academy has been strongly encouraging its roughly 730 students across pre-K through sixth grade to wear masks, which Sorensen has discussed in multiple videos on the school’s Facebook page in recent weeks.
“We’ve tried very hard not to politicize the issue, as much as possible, and just be encouraging and supportive and positive about it,” Sorensen told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Utah doctors warned in August that higher quality masks would not be an effective substitute for the safety provided by universal masking in classrooms. So far this school year, at least five schools have had outbreaks that triggered student testing under Test to Stay protocols, and one school, Mountain Crest High in Cache County School District, has currently met or exceeded that threshold. Eight schools were more than halfway there, according to data available Tuesday from the Utah Department of Health.
Here’s where the state masks have gone in Salt Lake County and a look at who is using them.
How many masks have districts received?
• Canyons School District: 16,940 small pediatric masks, 12,830 KN95 regular-sized masks, and 33,862 youth-sized masks, as well as donations from other organizations.
“We continue to make deliveries of masks to all our schools — elementary, middle and high school levels,” Jeffrey P. Haney, district spokesperson, said earlier this month.
• Granite School District: Received 94,956 three-ply pediatric surgical masks and 19,295 adult-sized KN95 masks for teachers on Aug. 13, and 31,000 child-sized KN95 masks, 30,000 youth-sized KN95 masks, and 24,000 adult-sized KN95 masks on Sept. 7.
The masks shipped in August have been distributed to elementary schools, while the supplies that arrived in September are being stored in a district warehouse and are available for elementary and junior high schools, according to Ben Horsley, district spokesperson.
The district also ordered “several thousand KN95 masks in pediatric sizes in addition to the tens of thousands we already had in stock,” according to Horsley.
• Jordan School District: Received 28,020 small pediatric masks, 56,000 small surgical masks, 3,760 regular-sized KN95 masks and 18,230 adult-sized KN95 masks on Aug. 20.
“The masks have been delivered to all schools (elementary and secondary) and buildings in the district,” said Sandy Riesgraf, district spokesperson.
• Murray City School District: Received 2,000 KN95 masks on Sept. 2, as well as “lots of disposable masks,” according to Doug Perry, district spokesperson, which have been distributed to all schools.
• Salt Lake City School District: Received shipments the weeks of Aug. 23 and Sept. 6. While a spokesperson for the district did not have exact numbers, he said the second shipment contained roughly 20,000 adult-sized and 10,000 youth-sized KN95 masks.
“The masks have been distributed to all of our schools,” said Jason R. Olsen, district spokesperson.
Are students using the masks?
While Riesgraf said she has heard that students and families in Jordan School District have been asking for the masks, most requests in Murray City School District have come from teachers and administrators, Perry said.
Because Salt Lake City School District has been under a rare mask order, from Mayor Erin Mendenhall, since classes began, Olsen said, “all of the students I have seen or interacted with are using their own masks and have not really been requesting the masks sent to us by the state.”
Any face covering requirements must come as a recommendation from a county health department, which the local county governing body can repeal, under a new law passed by the state Legislature. An attempt to enact a mask mandate in schools across Salt Lake County was overturned by the County Council.
In Granite School District, “we have only had a handful of schools that have seen more than one to two requests for these specific masks,” Horsley said.
Sorensen said that Neil Armstrong Academy has “an ample supply” of reusable, cloth masks, which are distributed to students on a regular basis. “We’ll send one or two home with every kid, just so they’ve got them,” he said.
With the KN95s that were provided by the district and state, “we give those out only on parent request, just because they are kind of a hot commodity,” Sorensen said. “We want to make sure they’re getting used.”
Some parents have reached out specifically for KN95s, which have been provided, he said.
“We have some kids who come to school everyday who are mask-wearing students who just forget it, over and over,” Sorensen said. “... So, we’re handing them a disposable mask, one or two times a day because the little loops on the back of the ears break.”
The school has “plenty” of those disposable masks, he said, “but we’re worried if we keep going through them at the rate that we’re going through, we may not make it through the end of the year without having to drum up some additional supplies.”
How do students get the masks?
Either a student or parent can request a mask from any school staff member in Granite School District, Horsley said. Families were notified about availability through social media, districtwide emails and through the schools.
“Since the masks are reusable, we are asking parents to only take one per week per child,” Horsley said.
At Neil Armstrong Academy, Sorensen said, “most parent requests for masks are coming from emails directly to me.”
Masks in Canyons School District “are available in the front office of all our schools,” Haney said. “If anyone asks for one, they are provided to them.”
The same applies in Jordan School District, according to Riesgraf.
“We allowed each school to have its own plan for letting students know about the masks and for distributing the masks because each school is different and has different needs,” she said.
Murray City School District is limiting one mask per requester, because “there are not enough for everyone,” Perry said. That may change if more become available, he said.
What instructions are given with masks?
Since KN95s are given out by request at Neil Armstrong Academy, Sorensen said, “I sent a long email to the parents, just with recommendations on how to use those KN95s best, to rotate them through so they’re not wearing them in consecutive days,” as well as how to get more when the masks become worn out.
“We recommended that kids label them, you know, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday,” he said.
With reusable cloth masks, “we do trainings with the whole student body in our lunchroom and in our assemblies talking about how to wash your mask,” Sorensen said, including “how to take their mask home at the end of the day, rinse it under warm water and hang it up to dry.”
“But the little disposable ones that we hand out, those are ones we just have use them one day and chuck them,” he said.
Without a mandate this year, masks have “become more a parent decision,” Sorensen said, and “we’ve kind of transitioned to a resource for parents,” providing them “ample resources” and “support.”
“We’ve built a good relationship” with the school’s families over the years, said Sorensen, and have had a mostly positive response to the mask rules this school year.
“There have been a few parents who have expressed frustration that there isn’t a mandate in place, but they’re not frustrated with us,” Sorensen said. “They know that that wasn’t our call, that we’re just one link in the chain.”
Sorensen added, “We still have a lot of COVID protocols in place. We’re doing extensive cleaning. We do distancing as much as as practicable. ... We’re doing everything that we can do within our scope to keep students safe.
At the same time, the school is focused on “getting back to business,” he said.
“We had to make some serious educational compromises over the last couple of years when it comes to student achievement and teaching students in small groups and things of that nature,” according to Sorensen.
“This is the year where we’ve got to make up some lost ground,” Sorensen said, and he thinks the students and staff are “rising to the challenge.”