Why kids may be the losers in Cox’s gamble on masks, Robert Gehrke writes

83 kids 5 to 18 get coronavirus every day in Utah, accounting for more than 25% of all cases.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

For months, Gov. Spencer Cox held firm on masks in school in the face of rancorous critics who demanded the mandate be lifted.

Lifting the mandate, he argued in early April, would leave the parents of vulnerable children without any assurances their kids would be safe.

Then on Thursday, he caved, lifting the state mask mandate for the final week of school, letting kids attend mask-free.

It’s a baffling decision, and here’s why.

• While the FDA has now approved vaccinations for kids ages 12 to 15, almost none of them have actually had a first shot and those that have won’t have a second shot before the end of the school year.

It’s impossible to tell from the state data what percentage of school-aged kids have been able to get a shot, but in Salt Lake County, about 5% of the 310,000 residents under the age of 18 have been vaccinated.

Those rates should pick up before the end of the month with the vaccinations of the 12-to-15-year-olds but a large portion of the school-aged children will still be unprotected.

• The governor’s explanation for lifting the mandate — that vaccination rates are up and case counts are down — doesn’t hold water.

We covered vaccinations above. And while the number of infections statewide is falling very, very gradually, the number of cases among school-aged children is not.

The number of cases among kids between the ages of 5 and 18 jumped significantly at the end of April — from a weekly total in the low 500s to more than 750 in the last week of April. Over the past week, there have been 580 cases in school-aged kids, an average of 83 per day, meaning they account for more than a quarter of all COVID cases in the state.

The Davis and Jordan districts have averaged 22 cases a day this month. And statewide, there were 80 more kids infected this week than there were back in April when Cox defended the mask mandate, saying he didn’t want to leave vulnerable kids exposed.

• Districts that didn’t want masks in schools were already ignoring the state mandate and the Health Department had made abundantly clear it didn’t intend to do anything about it.

Where this makes a difference is in districts like Granite where the school board responded to shrieking anti-mask protesters by simply pointing to the state requirement. It gave them and others cover. Within a few hours of the governor announcing the May 31 expiration of the state requirement, Granite District sent an email to parents notifying them that the district’s mandate was ending.

• Finally, there’s a piece that got overlooked, and that is that Cox also is suspending the “Test-To-Play” policy, requiring students to get tested for extracurricular activities. That means there won’t be testing required for summer sports or activities.

• And of course there’s the fact that it’s only five days. How much would it have hurt to just leave it alone at this point? Instead it’s forcing parents to decide whether or not to pull their kids out at the end of the year.

So it’s a policy change that isn’t being driven by widespread vaccination or falling case counts. Instead it feels like a sop to the right wing that shouted and stomped their feet and booed the governor at the convention.

Hopefully it doesn’t matter and we get through the school year without incident, with or without masks. But nothing about this decision makes sense.