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There will be no mask mandate in Utah schools this fall, Cox promises

“We’re all ready to be done with masks,” the governor said during a virtual town hall.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Students wearing face masks return to Highland High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 8, 2021. Gov. Spencer Cox promised Tuesday that face coverings will not be required in schools next year.

As the ongoing requirement for masks in Utah schools has become a flashpoint among some conservatives in the state, Gov. Spencer Cox is promising that face coverings will not be required in schools next year.

“There will be no masks in the fall,” he declared during a virtual town hall meeting Tuesday evening. “We will be done with that.”

Cox said that announcement, which comes after months of demands from some parents to end the mask mandate, has been welcomed by teachers and students across the state, as well as by his own kids.

Most statewide public health rules around COVID-19 were lifted earlier this month as the goals defined by state lawmakers for the pandemic in Utah were reached. But the Utah Department of Health quickly issued a new public health order, as state law allowed, to continue requiring face masks in schools.

The new requirements expire on the last day of the school year, or June 15, whichever comes first.

The health department has noted that the mask rule remains in place for schools because children under 16 haven’t yet had access to a COVID-19 vaccine, not every adult working in schools has been inoculated, and children can get sick from the coronavirus or transmit the disease to people at home.

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said in an interview Thursday that educators are divided, “as our nation is, as our state is, on what steps that we need to take in order to keep people safe and healthy.”

“We turn to our public safety and health officials to make those decisions,” she said. “And we’ll continue to do that.”

People who object to the mandate have staged anti-mask protests around the state over the past few months. And a group of them recently forced an early end to the Granite School Board meeting as they demanded the termination of the state’s mandate that mask rules remain in effect until the end of the school year.

Some school districts in rural parts of Utah have granted exceptions to the mask rule if a parent signs a letter vouching that their children suffer from some sort of medical condition. Groups that have pushed for those changes celebrated them as a return of agency to parents and students.

Cox has defended the decision to retain the mask mandate but told the Associated Press earlier this week that the state’s rising vaccination rates and dropping case counts mean school districts can limit restrictions soon. Students who are at a higher risk can continue to wear masks to school or attend school remotely if their school offers it, he said, but those decisions will now be left up to individual families.

“We’re all ready to be done with masks,” Cox said Tuesday, as part of his response to a question about how to improve education and teacher retention in the state.

As he acknowledged that it’s been a “rough year for teachers across our state and across our nation” and praised them for their dedication during the pandemic, he said the teacher shortage is a result of both low pay and a jungle of red tape that distracts from their jobs.

The state made “historic investments” in education this year, and he said much of that will go to teachers. Cox said he’s also looking at ways to reduce the amount of paperwork that has eliminated “the joy of teaching.”

“We continue to overregulate the classroom instead of allowing our teachers to do what they do best, and that’s teach,” he said. “We have so much paperwork and reporting requirements. We have hundreds of reporting requirements for teachers and school districts, many of which are duplicative or completely unnecessary. So we’re trying to peel back those regulations.”

Cox said he wants to make teaching a “career destination” for people again.

And he promised that with increasing availability of vaccines — including access to the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 12 to 16 as early as the end of this week — “next year is going to be even better.”

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