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SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake County Council on Thursday overturned the county health department's "order of restraint" that would have required K-6 students to wear masks when school starts next week.
As the council prepared to meet for a special meeting, an estimated 300 people, including dozens of children, gathered in the council meeting room and lobby. Many in the mostly unmasked crowd carried signs calling for parental choice.
The order requested by Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, would have included exemptions from last year's state K-12 mask order and would only apply to indoor settings. It would have remained in place for 30 days.
The proposal to overturn the order passed 6-3 along party lines, with Republicans voting to overturn the order. Council members Steve DeBry, Aimee Winder-Newton, Dave Alvord, Dea Theodore, Laurie Stringham and Richard Snelgrove each voted to overturn the mandate. Council members Ann Granato, Jim Bradley and Arlyn Bradshaw voted to keep the mask order in place.
After the vote, the room and adjoining lobby erupted into loud applause, cheers, screams and chants of "USA." A protest organizer led the group in patriotic songs as they celebrated.
"We are so excited that our kids do not have to go to school to be in masks again. They will be able to go to school mask-free, and we're so excited. They'll be able to breathe and learn and see their friends and see their teachers. It was really sad last year that by the end of the year, they still didn't even know what their classmates or their teachers looked liked," said Melinda Gardner, who has a kindergartner, a fourth grader and a sixth grader.
"I'm super happy because I had ... to wear masks, and I could barely breathe," said Ryan Bowerbink, who will start second grade.
"The year will feel much longer without masks, because all we had to focus on was wearing your masks. ... It was hot, and I didn't have any energy to go outside because of lack of oxygen. It will definitely make the year much more enjoyable," said Kash Bowerbink, a seventh grader.
The vote came hours after the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement urging the renewed use of face masks in public meetings to limit exposure to the virus. The leaders of the church also urged people to get vaccinated, calling the vaccinations "both safe and effective." Church President Russell M. Nelson has called the COVID-19 vaccines a "literal godsend."
An emotional debate
Before the council started its discussion, DeBry, the council chairman, asked those in attendance to be respectful.
Bradley suggested the council table the discussion and wait 30 or 40 days before revisiting this issue. The proposal prompted many in the crowd to make a thumbs-down gesture.
Bradley said the time would allow officials to compare infection rates in Salt Lake County to other areas without mask mandates.
"What it would do is allow the schoolchildren to have to wear a mask for a period of time," he said, prompting a scream apparently from a child in the audience. "Salt Lake County is in a unique position to be a contributor to the body of knowledge whether masks work or not."
Bradley's comments were frequently interrupted by outcries from the crowd, which were sometimes "shushed" by other members of the crowd. DeBry demanded the audience halt the interruptions. Bradley's proposal was voted down by the council, a decision that was met with applause.
Stringham acknowledged how difficult the issue is, but she said children aren't being taught civility and asked those in attendance to be civil.
"This is not a cut-and-dry easy decision for anybody who is up here," Stringham said. "Everybody here's had to look at their conscience and decide what's in the best interest of the people of Salt Lake County."
She acknowledged masks appeared to slow the spread of the disease last year, but she also said she saw the mental health toll it took on students. Stringham added she needed to decide "what is the most minimal disruption right now ... for both their health, their wellness, and their mental health."
Winder-Newton said the issue has been one of the most difficult decisions she's encountered in her years on the County Council.
"It's difficult because none of us have a crystal ball to see how our decisions today impact the future," Winder-Newton said, adding that she would vote against a mask mandate but encourage mask-wearing for those who can.
"I'm not going to put the burden of the community health care system on these children," she said.
Granato, however, noted that masks are recommended by pediatricians. She pointed to the months of work by health care workers and researchers to help fight the pandemic and treat the critically ill.
"It's my hope that we can come together again as a community and work to make the virus the common enemy," Granato said.
Salt Lake area leaders react to council's vote
"Today was not the County Council Republicans' finest hour. Against the recommendation of medical experts, and those working diligently to control the spread of COVID-19, they chose to overturn a well-thought-out health policy moved by (Dunn)," Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said in a prepared statement after the meeting.
"Salt Lake County invests in and trusts its experts. Unfortunately, the guidance provided by Dr. Dunn was overturned by those swept up in emotion and unproven theories instead of believing well-founded medical data surrounding COVID-19," she added.
Wilson said she hopes parents will recognize the "severe risk" the coronavirus poses and choose to send their kids to school wearing masks.
"Regardless, I want our kids to enter the school year with minimal conflict and disruption. It's up to the adults to make that happen," the mayor said.
Dunn thanked the council in a statement for its "quick decision so Salt Lake County parents, students, and educators have clarity."
When Dunn issued the request for an order earlier this week, she said she wasn't sure how the council would respond as some council members said they would not make a decision until they had an order in front of them.
"Though this is not the result I had hoped for, I am committed to continuing to work collaboratively with the council and other stakeholders to address the COVID pandemic," Dunn said.
She emphasized that vaccination is the most effective way to prevent COVID-19, but said wearing masks is the "second-best" way to protect oneself.
"I chose to issue a mask order because the delta variant is a serious threat to children and our current transmission rates require a strong intervention — one proven effective last school year. Though the order will not stand, I'm optimistic that issuing it clearly signaled my level of concern as a medical professional, and that it will help more parents choose to send their children to school in a mask," Dunn said.
She encouraged parents and teachers to "be good role models" by following health recommendations and "helping ensure our community dialogue on this and related issues remains kind and respectful."
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall criticized the council for "ignoring science and Dr. Dunn's expertise."
She tweeted that the decision "makes our community less safe and puts our children at risk," and that as a parent she's concerned for kids and worried for each child starting school on Aug. 24. The city is "evaluating its options," Mendenhall said, without providing more details.
The Utah Senate Minority Caucus expressed concern about the council's decision to terminate the mask order.
"This order offered needed protection for some of our most vulnerable loved ones — our children in grades K-6 who are at great risk without reasonable safeguards because they cannot receive the vaccine," a statement from the caucus says, in part.
Thursday's decision comes just two days after council members listened for several hours as dozens of people spoke for and against the mask mandate during a council work session.
At Tuesday's meeting, many people spoke in favor of the mandate, citing scientific evidence that shows masks work to stop the spread of COVID-19. Some pro-mask speakers acknowledged that masks aren't ideal and can lead to social anxiety in children, but said it's a necessary sacrifice to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.
But the council also allowed multiple speakers to spread misinformation and anti-mask conspiracy theories unchecked, with no one on the council speaking up to debunk falsehoods. When a boy likened being forced to wear masks to the Holocaust, no council members or staff challenged the comparison that previously landed U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, in a sea of controversy when she made similar comments earlier this summer.
Another speaker read a disclaimer label on a box of masks, noting that it said the masks don't block any viral materials. But the warning also said the masks reduce the wearer's contact with fluids, and since the COVID-19 virus is spread through droplets, that means the masks would potentially help.
One woman accused Dunn of presenting selective data to further an agenda of fear. Dunn's guidance during the pandemic has garnered gushing praise from her former bosses, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, but no one on the Salt Lake County Council defended the epidemiologist Tuesday.
Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Primary Children's Hospital, said on Twitter that "so much of what was said by those voting to overturn (the health order) was provably false. But if you make your mind up first based on electoral politics, you have to find a way to justify a position that is rationally hard to justify." The tweet sent after the vote emphasized that it reflects his own opinion.
Educator community speaks out
The Utah Education Association had urged the County Council's support of the mask mandate. After the vote, President Heidi Matthews said as the school year begins, "teachers want nothing more than to be in-person with our students, without the need for masks."
"Dr. Angela Dunn and health experts at the Salt Lake County Health Department provided their recommendation on how to keep the county's students learning in-person, but politicians objected. I sincerely hope the politicians are right and the health experts are wrong. The thought of once again riding the COVID roller coaster, bouncing back and forth from in-person to remote learning as happened in many Salt Lake County schools last year, is more than most teachers can bear and very distressing for our students," Matthews said.
The American Federation of Teachers also supported the health order and expressed disappointment in the council's decision.
"We highly encourage parents to send their younger children to school with masks and get their eligible children vaccinated," said Brad Asay, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Utah, in a statement.
"This is a major health crisis and we supported the proposed mask mandate based on the science and recommendations of professionals in the field. We now rely on districts, and we know that public education faculty and support professionals will do all they can to protect students," he said.
The County Council vote took "a valuable tool away from our school employees to ensure students are even more safe. We pray that God will protect our students and as a community and state we can come together to end this virus and the pandemic," Asay said.
Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney said the council's decision "gives clarity to families and employees in the few days before school starts. Canyons District does not have the legal authority to enforce a mask mandate on its own. As a result, when school starts on Monday, students and employees are welcome to wear face-coverings, but masks will not be required at school or in district offices."
Survey reveals parents worried about upcoming school year
As the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads, 56% of parents nationwide are more worried about their kids' health and safety as they return to school this fall compared to a year ago, a new Qualtrics study shows.
While 65% of parents identified in-person learning as the best environment for children, nearly two-thirds said they would support a school closure if COVID-19 cases continue to surge, according to Qualtrics' 2021 Back to School study.
In an interview Thursday, Karla Fisher, Qualtrics' chief adviser for educational institutions, said the results suggest parents are in "a really sad and frustrating balance — that they're concerned about their children's health with concerns about their educational future."
The data shows "parents are really concerned about the pandemic learning but this spike has really scared them," Fisher said.
Even as parents acknowledge their children's education was diminished by the pandemic, "they're still willing to keep their students home. That's a level of fear that surprised me in the data," she said.
The study gauges parental opinions "at a time of great uncertainty for government and school district leaders making critical policy decisions about children's safety," according to a statement.
A survey of more than 1,000 parents of school-age children nationwide that informed the study also showed 53% said their kids fell behind on schoolwork during the pandemic. Parents cited hybrid or remote learning as the No. 1 reason.
Federal regulators have not yet approved a coronavirus vaccine for children under the age of 12, and state law prohibits requirements for universal masking or vaccination. Local health authorities can issue orders of restraint but county elected officials may overturn an order at any time.
According to Utah State Epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen, "masks are the next best protection" for the child population not currently able to receive the vaccine.
Fisher said other research by Qualtrics' suggests nearly a quarter of parents said they would pull their child out of school if they had to wear a mask to school while the study released Thursday showed 65% of parents would be supportive of a school closure if delta variant cases continue to spike.
"So again, (there's) a dichotomy. How do we approach this?" Fisher said.
Locally, there are other indications of growing parental concern as the start of the school year approaches. Jordan School District's online school program has experienced an uptick in enrollment in the past week, especially in the elementary and high school levels.
"Certainly we're hearing some parents are uneasy," said district spokeswoman Sandra Riesgraf.
Others have waited to make the decision so they had a better understanding of conditions before enrolling their children in school, she said.
"We are here and ready to help parents and students. We're happy we have options for parents," she said.
Most of the nation's schools are preparing to reopen for fully in-person instruction, if they haven't done so already. Some Utah schools will reopen this week, with most schools in Salt Lake County scheduled to start next week or the following week.
Christopher Phillips, a father of two school-age children and a toddler, said the growing coalition of parents who support mask mandates will continue to work with local school boards, state lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox.
State lawmakers need to undo the COVID-19 "endgame legislation that put us in this bind where our public health orders are now political footballs," he said.
Parents who support mask mandates also plan to reach out to Cox and express "that it's impossible to just stay on the sidelines with what's happening. We need to act in the interest of our community or we're going to see things like we're currently seeing in Florida, and other places in the South, in our own backyards," Phillips said.
Meanwhile, the child advocacy organization Voices for Utah Children is calling on the Utah Legislature to conduct a special session to reinstate the mask requirement for all K-12 schools in Utah. This requirement was in place last fall but eliminated under the so-called COVID "endgame" legislation passed by lawmakers earlier this year.
"We use a simple filter in our work, which is, 'Is it good for kids?' We feel that given our current situation the reinstatement of a mask requirement is in the best interest of all our children. We urge members of the public to contact your state senators and representatives to ask them to join our call for a special session immediately to override the current statute and protect our children," the organization said in a statement.
Other national research suggests a parental preference for masking over vaccination.
In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll of 1,259 parents of school-age children, 63% said their child's school should require unvaccinated students and staff to wear masks in school, while 36% say they should not. The poll, conducted from mid-July to early August, had a 4 percentage point margin of error.
"Despite controversy around the country about masks in schools, most parents want their school to require masks of unvaccinated students and staff," foundation President and CEO Drew Altman said in a statement.
"At the same time, most parents don't want their schools to require their kids get a COVID-19 vaccine despite their effectiveness in combating COVID-19."
Contributing: Jacob Klopfenstein