Salt Lake City extends mask mandate for K-12 schools

City Council votes to extend Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s emergency declaration.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign regarding masks at Hawthorne Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

The Salt Lake City Council voted Tuesday night to extend the mask mandate for schools until at least spring break.

The vote took place during the last scheduled council meeting of 2021. Without this action, the mask requirement, first put in place in August by Mayor Erin Mendenhall, would have ended when K-12 students returned from winter break Jan. 3.

Salt Lake City School District officials requested that the City Council take up the issue to provide clarity for students, parents and teachers.

The council unanimously supported the extension of the emergency declaration, and some members pointed to updated coronavirus numbers to explain their vote.

“A lot of Salt Lake City residents understand and believe that masks work,” Council Vice Chair Chris Wharton said. “But I think that this is even further evidence that our district numbers are staying lower, and that kids and staff and teachers are staying safer than what we’re seeing in other districts.”

The Salt Lake City School District has had a case rate of 358 per 100,000 people in the past 14 days, which is the lowest of the five districts in Salt Lake County, according to numbers released Tuesday by Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the county health department.

And Salt Lake City schools have had a case rate of 3,131 in the past 105 days, which is also the lowest in the county.

The Salt Lake district is the only one with a mask mandate.

Murray School District has had the highest rate of COVID-19 this year with a case rate of 4,665. The Jordan District has had the highest rate in the past two weeks at 584.

The vaccination rates for students 12 and up in the districts are roughly similar. Murray is at 65%, Salt Lake City and the Canyons School District are at 64%, Granite District is at 63%, and Jordan is at 60%.

Salt Lake City schools have a higher rate for students 5 to 11, at 19%, followed by Canyons (14%), Murray (13%), Granite (10%) and Jordan (8%).

The City Council’s action will extend the mask mandate until March 25, when spring break begins.

“I hope that we can keep people safe,” Wharton said, “through the rest of the cold and flu season.”

Mendenhall issued the mask mandate in August, just days before classes began. It applies to all students and staffers at public, charter and private K-12 schools within the city. Masks must be worn inside schools and on buses except during lunchtime, sports activities or when communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.

Her move was controversial, drawing criticism from state lawmakers, and some fear of retribution in the upcoming legislative session. The Legislature had banned school districts from enacting their own mandate.

House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, criticized Mendenhall’s move on Facebook, saying that a mayor could issue such a mandate only if there were a disaster or a threat to public safety.

“There is no public safety threat, no disaster, and no threat of a disaster to justify [Mendenhall’s] order mandating masks in schools,” Schultz wrote. “... This troubling pattern of issuing orders and claiming authority granted through emergency powers MUST be stopped.”

The Legislature has not taken any action to stop the mask mandate in Salt Lake City schools.

CorrectionDec. 15, 1:30 p.m. • An earlier version misstated the coronavirus cases attributed to each school district.