Don’t expect Utah lawmakers to reverse ban on school mask mandates

Local health departments, working with county governments, will make the decision

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Assistant House Majority Whip Rep. Val L. Peterson, R-Orem, sponsored legislation blocking Utah schools from issuing mask mandates.

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COVID-19 cases in Utah are soaring, just weeks before K-12 and college students begin to return to class. Utah lawmakers blocked publicly-funded schools from requiring masks for students, and there’s no desire on Capitol Hill to revisit that decision anytime soon.

Legislative leaders had no discussions about possibly revoking HB1007, passed during the May special session, which bars public schools and universities from forcing students to wear masks. Instead, the authority for a mask mandate is now in the hands of county leaders working with local health departments.

Assistant House Majority Whip Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, who sponsored the bill, says it was the proper move and he sees no reason to reverse the decision.

“This puts the responsibility for what is a health issue in the hands of health departments. It creates a mechanism for county government to work with health experts to decide the best course of action,” Peterson said.

A local health department can implement a mask mandate in schools due to a COVID outbreak, but that order can be terminated by the local county governing body. The bill does not prevent the wearing of face coverings in schools or on campus, but masks cannot be a requirement.

The seven-day average for new COVID-19 cases in the state was 861 on Monday, the most since February.

House Majority Whip Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper said he believes the Legislature’s June actions on masks in schools was sufficient, and he doesn’t believe there’s any appetite among his Republican colleagues to change the policy on masking in schools.

“We made it harder to require masks, but if things get difficult, there is still an avenue for health departments to make that move,” Schultz said.

Barring schools from implementing a mask mandate was just one of several changes made by Utah lawmakers in the past year to reign in emergency powers or make it more difficult to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.