Utah’s public schools and universities would not be allowed to require face masks for students this fall, under a bill that received preliminary approval from a legislative committee on Tuesday.
Students could still choose to wear masks. But the legislation, which passed through the Education Interim Committee with a 16-7 vote, would prohibit schools from mandating face coverings in the classroom or anywhere else on campus and as a condition of participating in school activities, like athletics or other extracurriculars.
Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem and the bill’s chief sponsor, said the proposal, HB1007, is an effort to “return to some normalcy” as more people in the state get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“We are getting into conditions where we feel like we can do this safely,” he said.
But some lawmakers worried that the bill, which will be considered further at Wednesday’s special session, could tie the hands of communities that want to respond nimbly to an outbreak of COVID-19 or another infectious disease.
“We’ve seen outbreaks in other parts of the world — different viruses, not only COVID-19 — that required masks,” said Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray. “And my concern is that we might not be flexible enough in those early days of us learning about a COVID-19” to address a future pandemic.
Peterson and his co-sponsor, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said that if an outbreak occurred, the governor could issue a mask mandate in schools or the Legislature could call itself into session to implement one.
But Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, who was on oxygen Tuesday after a bout of COVID-19 recently put her in the hospital for a week, spoke against the bill, arguing that it limited local decision making.
“For me, this issue is a local issue. We have had multiple instances throughout the state where some districts are high, some districts are low,” she said. “But I think it’s for the one principle that the legislative body, who’s a part time body, we’re not full time, we’re not always in session to make quick changes. This body should not be dictating whether or not the state should be wearing masks or not wearing masks.”
Salt Lake City School District announced Tuesday evening that it plans to keep the mask mandate in place for its schools through the last day of the school year, on June 7.
“We’ve come too far to let go of proven safety practices like mask-wearing with just a few days left in the school year,” said interim superintendent Larry Madden in a news release. “The risk is too great, especially when we consider those in our school communities with preexisting health conditions or who have family members at home who are high risk for contracting COVID-19.”
During public comment on the bill, several people spoke in favor of the proposal, arguing that parents should have a choice to decide whether their students wear a face mask.
Emilie Daly, a parent in the Davis School District who said she worked as a substitute teacher, told legislators that she’s noticed most students aren’t wearing their masks appropriately in the classroom anyway.
“So that suggests that masks are not doing what we think they’re doing in schools, because they are only effective if they are worn appropriately, and I have firsthand knowledge that they are not,” she said.
She urged the lawmakers to “please support this [bill] and give the rights of parents to make these decisions for their children back to the parents.”
But France Barral, a parent in the Granite School District, argued that face masks have been effective and have contributed to the low transmission rate in Utah’s schools.
“Mask wearing is a victim of its own success,” she said. “Would any one of us recommend that we stop wearing seat belts because the death tolls on the roads have decreased? Would anyone invoke their personal freedom not to wear seat belts? Most of us agree that wearing seat belts work and we just do it.”
Jay Blain, director of policy and research with the Utah Education Association, said the organization was not speaking in favor of or against the bill but was glad the policy would not prohibit students from wearing face masks at schools.
But he said he was concerned that education leaders had not been consulted as the bill was drafted.
“We understand the tight timeframe, but that would have been the optimal process for that to happen,” he said. “Regardless, may we all go forward together collaborating to keep everyone as safe as possible in the schools, the medically fragile as well as everyone who is stout and healthy.”
The bill will receive further consideration from the full House and the full Senate at Wednesday’s special session.