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Here's where K-12 students may still need to wear masks

Students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in South Salt Lake wear masks as the get on a bus to go home on Aug. 24, 2020. Masks may still be required on school buses this school year due to federal mandates, despite no district mask mandates.

Students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in South Salt Lake wear masks as the get on a bus to go home on Aug. 24, 2020. Masks may still be required on school buses this school year due to federal mandates, despite no district mask mandates. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — One Utah county's proposed mask mandate for schools may have been overturned Thursday, but don't throw away your child's masks just yet.

Students may still need to wear masks on school buses, as they are mandated by the federal government on all modes of public transportation. All children and drivers — except for those with disabilities that prevent them from wearing face coverings — are required to wear them, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Utah school districts, however, are working through the legal requirements with their attorneys, said Senate spokeswoman Aundrea Peterson.

"The great part about Utah is we all work together to determine what can be done within state statute," she said.

A legislative policy analyst was unavailable Friday to comment on whether state law might trump the federal policy. The Utah Legislature this year passed SB195, which outlines the scope of public health orders and puts power to make orders largely in the hands of local governments.

Masks are still required at local transportation hubs, including the Utah Transit Authority and the Salt Lake City International Airport.

The CDC also recommends that districts encourage families to drive or walk their children to school when possible to reduce bus loads.

Ensuring physical distancing and mask wearing on a bus sounds like a tall order, but the CDC offers the following guidelines for drivers to help prevent spread in what can be one of the most crowded, rowdy settings:

  • Open windows to increase circulation of outdoor air, "as long as doing so does not pose a safety or health risk."
  • Maintain mandatory consistent, correct use of masks by adults and children while on a school bus and at bus stops.
  • Districts should provide drivers with extra masks to make available in case a student does not have one.
  • Seat one student per row, alternating window and aisle seating, and skipping rows when possible.
  • Seat members of the same household next to each other.
  • Assign each bus rider to a designated seat that is the same every day.
  • Use seat assignments that load the bus from the rear forward (and unload from the front backward) to help reduce student contact.
  • Install signage with visual cues on the school bus to encourage physical distancing and to communicate this information to students with vision or reading disabilities.

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. The 6-3 vote was along party lines with Republicans voting to overturn the order.

It marked the first time a mask order was proposed in Utah for this school year after the Legislature passed a law that restricts Utah gubernatorial, mayoral and local health department powers to issue prolonged emergency orders. SB195 limits the duration of a public health order to 30 days and only allows the Legislature — and other legislative bodies such as county councils or city councils — to extend or terminate an order. It also gives legislative bodies the power to end an "order of constraint," such as a stay-at-home order, at any time.

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.

The council's decision to overturn the order prompted celebration from hundreds of parents who attended the meeting, and frustration from many members of the education community who said they hoped the mandate would help keep students and workers safe and keep school going in-person.

Some parents also expressed disappointment after the meeting.

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. He said 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."

The Salt Lake County Council's vote to terminate the health order "was a shameful act that will bear a price. I hope that none of us personally bear it. But there is a cost when we allow this awful virus to be unleashed in our communities, without taking the steps we need to to stop it," he said.

In addition to health risks, the council's decision will also impact children's ability to attend school consistently, without interruptions due to illness, quarantines or school staffing shortages.

"One of the big purposes of moving forward with a mask mandate from Dr. Dunn was so that our kids would avoid interruptions in the classroom so that they could continue to be in seats at school, seeing their friends, interacting, socializing and getting the best education they could. The likelihood of that happening has diminished greatly because of this political act," Phillips said.

Contributing: Marjorie Cortez


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