Utah Legislature votes to ban schools from requiring face masks this fall

Critics say the measure would tie the hands of local decision-makers to respond quickly to a health crisis.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Canyon View Elementary teacher Melissa Casper works with her third grade students in Cottonwood Heights on Tuesday, May 18, 2021.

A bill to bar public schools and universities from forcing students to wear masks sailed through the Utah Legislature Wednesday, over objections from Democrats and Republicans who said the measure infringes on local control over public health decisions.

Under the legislation, public schools and universities in Utah would not be able to require masks inside classrooms or anywhere else on campus or mandate them as a condition for participation in any instruction or activities.

“This bill is about returning our schools to normalcy,” said Rep. Val Peterson, who sponsored HB1007. “About giving some assurances to parents and to students alike that when they come back this fall, that they’ll return back to a normal situation.”

The University of Utah announced Wednesday that face coverings will no longer be mandated in campus buildings beginning Monday, although University of Utah Health facilities will continue to require them. Last week, Gov. Spencer Cox announced students in K-12 public schools will be allowed to go mask-free for the last week of school; the Salt Lake City School District has since announced it will continue to require them.

Peterson, R-Orem, noted that nothing in the bill would prevent people from wearing a face coverings if they wish and that the measure applies specifically to COVID-19 and not to other diseases. The proposal also leaves open the possibility for mask mandates in schools with coronavirus outbreaks — it’s just that the decision would be up to county leaders in consultation with local health officers, he said.

But by the time a school is experiencing an outbreak, it might be too late, argued Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost.

“The whole point of a mask is to prevent an outbreak,” she said. “Once you’ve already got it spread, it doesn’t really matter if you wear a mask.”

Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, also pointed out that students younger than 12 are still ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. While Peterson countered that these children are “our least vulnerable population,” she said kids with underlying conditions can still become seriously ill or even die from the disease.

Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights and a teacher, said during debate on the bill that she was worried about the impact the policy could have on the state’s most medically vulnerable students. She proposed an amendment, which failed on the floor, that would have allowed school districts to create mask mandates in certain situations.

She wanted them to have the option to do so if the state’s 14-day COVID-19 case rate is greater than 191 per 100,000 people; if the statewide seven-day average for ICU bed occupancy is higher than 15%; if less than 70% of the state’s population is vaccinated; or if more than 75% of the population of a school or class qualifies as medically vulnerable or immunocompromised.

“These students are being left out,” she said. “They are staying home. They’re staying home at a higher rate than every population in our school. They are not being sent. They are losing these interactions.”

“We aren’t protecting our most vulnerable students in this situation,” Riebe added.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said schools would be able to work with their local heath districts to create mask mandates if they’re concerned about a high number of vulnerable students in their classrooms.

It wasn’t just Democrats who spoke against the bill.

Rep. Melissa Garff Ballard, on oxygen after a severe bout with COVID-19, said she opposed the proposal, but not because of the personal toll the disease has taken on her. Instead, she told colleagues, she is fundamentally against taking power away from local leaders to make decisions for their communities.

Many of her fellow Republican legislators present themselves as strong believers in upholding local control and railed against the governor last year for imposing a statewide mask mandate rather than leaving these requirements up to individual communities, she continued.

“I feel it’s very hypocritical for this body to tout local control or complain about the governor last year having a face mask mandate,” the North Salt Lake Republican said. “And now, we are turning around and requiring a state mandate to not allow masks without a huge process.”

She also voiced concern that the bill’s sponsors hadn’t gotten enough input from educators when crafting the proposal.

And Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland, whose husband is a Morgan County School District board member, objected that the legislation effectively tells local education leaders that they’re “not qualified to speak to the needs of the kids in your schools that you’ve been elected to serve.

Other Republicans argued that the legislation does protect local authority and simply alleviates confusion about which community leader is in charge of requiring masks during a coronavirus outbreak.

“This bill clarifies that it will not be imposed by the university president or the local school board,” Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, said. “It will be imposed by the county government in consultation with the local health director.”

Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, also spoke in favor of the measure, alluding to the shift in Utah’s COVID-19 response from a focus on rising case rates to a focus on vaccinations.

“We are transitioning to the point where this becomes an individual choice now and not a mandated situation and individuals can choose, which I think is appropriate,” he said.

The bill passed the House with a 50-24 vote and in the Senate with a 23-5 vote.

— Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.