Tribune Editorial: Gov. Herbert puts burden of pandemic on Utah schools

(Laura Seitz | Deseret News) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announces that he is expanding face mask requirements to all schools, but he did not make a general requirement statewide, during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 9, 2020.

On top of placing the burden of feeding, counseling, protecting — and, oh, yes, educating — the youth of our state on the underfunded and overcrowded public schools, Gov. Gary Herbert has added a major responsibility for dealing with the still-rising COVID-19 pandemic.

How very Utah of him.

The governor announced Thursday that he would require all students, teachers, administrators and staff in the public schools and publicly funded charter schools to wear masks on the premises and on school buses.

If we are to have any hope at all that Utah can open its schools in the fall, and not have to close them again shortly thereafter, that is the least he could do.

Really. The very least.

Herbert should have made the wear-masks-in-public order apply to the entire state in any public or business space where proper physical distancing was not happening.

But, apparently because so much of the governor’s Republican Party is squarely in the give-us-libery-and-give-them-coronavirus camp, he didn’t have the nerve to take that extra step.

State legislative leaders, including Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson, announced Wednesday that they opposed such a mandate. And there are enough other Republicans all up and down the line who fall anywhere from saying masks are an unconstitutional imposition to claiming that the whole COVID thing is a big Democratic hoax that Herbert must have felt it would be too far of a reach.

That’s sad.

Herbert isn’t running for re-election this year, after 10 years in the governor’s chair. His favored successor, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, has already all but won the office by taking the Republican primary. So there was a fleeting hope that, freed of all electoral risk, Herbert might have taken advantage of what may be his last chance to really lead the state by taking decisive action.

But, then, why start now?

Now it will be the politically powerless students — from fidgety kindergarteners to defiant teenagers — who will be asked to wear masks, sit far apart, keep everything clean and do the other stuff necessary to slow the transmission of the potentially deadly virus from one set of lungs to another.

And it will be up to the older — often much older — teachers, principals, custodians and lunch ladies to enforce those procedures while avoiding catching anything themselves.

If it is at all possible to open the schools, we should do so.

Students have already lost crucial time in the classroom, risking more than the usual atrophy of skills. And young people, it appears, are much less likely than their elders to develop coronavirus symptoms or suffer serious, ongoing effects.

But children are also, as any parent or teacher can tell you, eager transmission vectors of any disease, not only making it risky for the adults who work in schools but also increasing the chance that the much-more-vulnerable parents and grandparents they go home to each day will be infected.

Thus Herbert and the rest of us are taking a serious, if not altogether foolhardy, risk by pretending that the schools can be a safe haven from the spread of this disease. Especially if the rest of the state is not expected to take the same precautions.

Because, like cranky children, they don’t feel like it.

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