Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall issued an emergency order requiring masks in K-12 schools on Friday.
Her decision to issue the mandate came after the Salt Lake City School District said it won't take a vote to support such an order, as the mayor requested earlier this week.
"As mayor it is my responsibility to do everything I can to keep our city and our school district, from going down the tragic and dangerous path many others are already on. With the health of our children, our community, and our healthcare workers in mind, I am issuing this order," Mendenhall said.
"Kids under 12 can't get vaccinated but are required to be indoors in school all day. In our county, only 50% of kids between 12 and 17 are vaccinated. That's just not enough to protect these kids, their families and the community at large," she added.
The order requires each student, parent, visitor and others to wear masks in kindergarten through grade 12 at a public, charter, or private school in Salt Lake City when in any indoor area of the premises, on school-provided transportation, attending an indoor school-sponsored activity, or outdoors on school premises when social distancing is not possible. The mandate contains some exceptions including while eating, drinking and exercising.
The City Attorney's office conducted a legal analysis of Mendenhall's options and determined "it is within her legal capacity to declare this local emergency and issue orders related to it to protect public health and safety," according to the statement.
Earlier Friday, Salt Lake City School District officials in a statement thanked the mayor "for her unwavering concern for the health and safety of our students during this ongoing pandemic."
"Our students' health and well-being have always been and remain our priority. We recognize that individuals across the country have varying ideas and opinions on the issue of mask mandate. Nevertheless, the district firmly believes that wearing masks decreases the spread of the COVID-19 virus and is convinced that our mask-wearing guidelines implemented during the last school year were critical to allowing our schools to remain open," district officials said.
They said they would continue to "strongly" encourage mask-wearing for all students, employees and visitors in schools.
Mendenhall on Tuesday indicated she would order a mask mandate for schools as long as the school district holds an emergency meeting to vote in support of a mandate. But the district's statement in response indicated it would leave the decision up to Mendenhall as state law passed by the Legislature during a special session this spring banned school districts or schools from issuing their own mask mandates.
"We recognize that the mayor has broad powers, independent of the board of education, under the Disaster Response and Recovery Act to address local emergencies and disasters affecting the city," district officials said, adding that they were awaiting the mayor's decision.
Mendenhall noted that the school board is a "locally elected governing body charged with making educational and safety decisions for our district's children.
"Unfortunately, and despite all the evidence that masks protect children and the adults who care for them, this issue has become politicized to the point that elected bodies across the country, and in the State of Utah, worry about retribution if they take a public stand as an organization," she said.
Mendenhall said she's spoken to a majority of school board members "who've privately told me they want me to issue this order."
"While acting without an official position from the board is not my preferred path, hanging in the balance of this decision is the health of our children, our community and our healthcare workers," the mayor added.
The school board emphasized that it "strongly support(s) the belief that we as a community must protect our children who are not eligible to get vaccinated at this time by wearing masks."
District officials noted that the 2021 Legislature also passed a law that outlines a path for implementing mask mandates in schools, which requires a public health official to recommend one and then seek county commission or council approval. Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, requested a K-6 mask mandate last week. It was overturned four days later by the County Council.
Doctors encourage masks in schools
Doctors from two of Utah's largest health care systems expressed concern Friday about what will happen at quickly-filling hospitals as students continue to return to school without masks.
Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease physician Dr. Eddie Stenehjem said at a news conference that health care workers expect the decreased health measures in schools to contribute to rapid COVID-19 spread across the state.
Between seven and 10 days after most of the school districts start their fall terms, communities will begin to see the impacts, he said.
And it will likely look different than last school year. Last year, children wore masks and many had virtual or hybrid school schedules. The more-viral variant will also "compound" risk, Stenehjem said.
School-age populations are least protected from the disease, as students under age 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine. And, now they're congregating in a setting that makes it easy to spread, then they take it to their homes.
"So it really is an effective means of transmitting a respiratory infection," Stenehjem said.
Parents need to put their risk in context. If other family members are fully vaccinated and no one in their family is immunocompromised, they can "rest a little easier." But if they do have at-risk contacts, they should be concerned and take precautions.
Dr. Adam Hersh, professor in the division of pediatric infectious diseases and epidemiologist at University of Utah Health and Intermountain's Primary Children's Hospital, said that in settings of very high mask use, in-school transmission of the coronavirus was less than 1% — far below transmission rates observed in congregant settings when masks aren't used.
When U. researchers tracked over 100 close contacts of infected contagious students in school, if they were wearing masks during the time of contact, none became infected "despite having this in-school exposure," Hersh said at a University of Utah Health news conference.
"When breakdowns in mask use do occur, there's a substantial risk of transmission, and these same findings have been shown repeatedly in schools throughout the U.S.," Hersh said.
Dr. Jeremy Kendrick, assistant professor of psychiatry at Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said kids, in particular, have faced significant burdens due to multiple factors during the pandemic, including school closures and returns to school.
But he said evidence doesn't point to "any concerns" that masks specifically affect the mental health of children.
Hersh said kids can safely wear masks all day.
"We want to look for masks that have multiple layers, cloth masks that have multiple layers tend to be very comfortable because of the material," Hersh said.
If a KN95 masks fits a child comfortably for a whole school day, that is a good option. But kids should be able to wear a mask that they like the look of and that fits well, and that does not have large holes on the side of the face. They should be given different mask options, Hersh said.