Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall signaled her intent to issue a mask mandate for schools in Utah’s capital during a City Council meeting Tuesday afternoon, suggesting that she believes she has the authority to do so — regardless of the Legislature.
The mayor cited the delta variant of the coronavirus, which is much more contagious and therefore causing more cases in children compared to last year. She said the health crisis falls under an emergency, giving her the power to act.
“My biggest concern right now is with the health of our unvaccinated school kids who are about to start classes in the Salt Lake School District,” Mendenhall said, “... without anything in place to protect them from the pandemic.”
She noted that a vaccine has not been approved for kids under age 12 and that schools across the country have quarantined thousands of students or moved to online learning mere days after they opened this year.
Schools in Salt Lake City School District are set to start next week, on Aug. 24.
The Salt Lake County Health Department previously had tried to issue a mask requirement for schools countywide. That order, issued by its health director, Dr. Angela Dunn, was voted down last week by the County Council on party lines, with Republicans against it.
The requirement would have covered five public school districts — Salt Lake City, Jordan, Canyons, Granite and Murray — along with any charter schools in the county. Mendenhall previously voiced her support for the measure.
Now, the proposed mandate from Mendenhall would apply only to Salt Lake City School District and any charters within the capital’s boundaries.
“It would have been much more impactful and would have prevented far more illness,” the mayor said, “for the County Council to have supported Dr. Dunn’s mask order for schools countywide.”
The Republican-dominated Utah Legislature has banned school districts from enacting their own mask mandates. Those orders must instead come as a recommendation from a county health department, with the local county governing body having the authority to repeal them.
The only district that has successfully gone through that process is Grand County School District in southeastern Utah, which will have a 30-day mask mandate when classes start there Thursday.
Salt Lake City School District previously told The Salt Lake Tribune that it would not seek to go against the state and issue its own mask requirement for students. Instead, it is strongly recommending that kids wear face coverings.
The district reiterated that again Tuesday, saying in a statement that its board shares Mendenhall’s concerns and knows that masks are effective against COVID-19.
But “various state statutes currently appear to limit our ability to enforce a mask mandate,” said spokesman Jason Olsen. “Therefore, we are seeking a legal opinion on what actions a local school board can take regarding masking in schools within the scope of state law.”
Still, Mendenhall said the City Attorney’s Office had reviewed state law, and she’s “fully confident” the legislation does not apply to city mayors.
“So this authority and ability is not unique to Salt Lake City,” Mendenhall said.
The mayor previously acted independently on public health actions that state lawmakers had tried to reel in this year. She kept citywide mask ordinance in place in April, for example, which also flew in the face of the state’s endgame law. Legislators did not challenge the move.
Salt Lake City School District, too, forged its own path at times during the pandemic. Last year, the district was the only one in the state to start the year entirely online as a precaution against COVID-19 — despite pressure from the state to return to in-person classes, including threats of decreased funding and withholding teacher bonuses.
Mendenhall added that she worried board members aren’t scheduled to meet again until Sept. 3, more than a week after the first day of school.
Council member James Rogers formally requested that the school board hold an emergency meeting on the matter, which Mendenhall said she supported.
“It’s important to everyone that teachers be able to ... have supplies they need, to manage their classrooms and their students safely,” the mayor said. “If we were able to get that support from the school district before school starts, I think it would be best for everyone.”
In a tweet Tuesday afternoon after her discussion with the council, Mendenhall said she had asked the school board to determine whether it would support a mask requirement.
At the time of publication, it was unclear whether the mayor’s proposed order would apply only to elementary schools, where the students are too young at this point to get the vaccine.
The issue of masks in the classroom has divided the state and country.
Here, there have been politically warring groups of parents, with one in favor of prohibiting schools from requiring masks and “allowing freedom.”
Parents on the other side — backed by many doctors in Utah — say they’re upset that one of the best tools to protect kids from COVID-19 would be limited while the highly contagious delta variant spreads.
Already, Utah’s children’s hospital are full before most classes have begun.
Last year, there were roughly 40,000 coronavirus cases reported in schools, and that was when all children were required to wear masks.