Summit County Council hears backlash after school mask order |

Summit County Council hears backlash after school mask order

Some say it goes too far, others claim it doesn’t go far enough

The Summit County Courthouse.
Park Record file photo

The Summit County Council heard a barrage of criticism at its meeting Wednesday levied at a threshold-based mask order implemented for elementary schools in the county.

The order, which was issued by county Health Director Phil Bondurant and went into effect Wednesday, would require elementary school students to wear masks if their school experiences a COVID-19 positivity rate of 2% or greater in a 14-day stretch.

Council Chair Glenn Wright said county officials worked with the Utah Board of Education and the superintendents of Park City, South Summit and North Summit school districts before the order was enacted. He said the council feels the order is a narrowly tailored, science-based approach that applies only to elementary schools, “where children do not have access to the vaccine.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that students in grades K-12 wear masks, and public health experts have said they remain a vital tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.

Several parents opposed to requiring masks in the classroom spoke during a public comment period Wednesday and made it clear they disagree with the order.

“For this entire pandemic you have been beating one drum,” said parent Bridget Brown. “Masks and vax, masks and vax. Not one word about the overall health of the children in the community.”

Brown claimed Utah children are physically healthier compared to kids in other states and do not need to wear masks, and that masks are harming children’s mental health.

“You cannot look me in the eye and tell me masking healthy children is going to prevent cases of severe COVID,” she said.

Elizabeth Smith, another parent, said mask mandates are about fear and that the county is behaving irrationally. Smith said her “heart goes out” to children who are immunocompromised but said society should not bend over backward to protect them.

“We do not break the spirit and future livelihood of every child because one is at risk,” she said. “Does a recovering alcoholic ask the community to ban alcohol? Does a diabetic ask the store to stop stocking sugar and carbs?”

Heather Eddy, who said she has three kids in Park City School District, said she was there to “stand up and fight for the rights of my children to breathe fresh air and for their beautiful, full faces to be seen.” Eddy said elementary school-aged children wear masks improperly and that a focus on other hygiene measures is more appropriate for them.

“Please allow us to follow our God-given intuition on what we know is best for our children,” she said.

Ryan Sternagel offered sarcastic congratulations to the council, which he said “managed to infuriate both sides” with the order.

Sternagel said the pro-mask crowd has been unfair in its response to him and others who question their efficacy.

“You would think we hated children and wanted them to die,” he said.

Not everyone who spoke was against the order, however. County employee Brian Craven, who had been working the stopwatch during the public comment portion of the meeting, stood up and took the podium to tell his own story.

“I have a beautiful, 2-year-old granddaughter who has now had COVID three times,” he said. “She had no health problems before, no comorbidities, but now because of COVID she has lung problems.”

Craven then turned toward the anti-mask crowd in attendance.

“How many of you would allow her to die because, well, she’s not your kid,” he said. “Are you willing to let my granddaughter die because you can’t see past the nose on your face? I wear a mask not for me, but for you. I would ask you to do the same.”

Brian DePersia, a parent of two children, one of whom is immunocompromised, said he homeschooled both kids last school year out of caution. This year, his 6-year-old is going to first grade while his 10-year-old will continue to be homeschooled.

“Masks suck, I get it,” he said. “But we don’t know a lot (about the delta coronavirus variant). It’s only been the majority strain in Utah since June, and in those two months we’re already back to the same levels of infection we were at in February.”

DePersia asked other parents to keep every child in mind.

“I’m sorry, I know it’s a hassle, but we protect our children,” he said. “We make accommodations for people who are disabled and we need to make accommodations for families with children who are at risk.

“My children deserve an education as well.”

Megan McKenna, a Park City High School teacher and the steward for the Park City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union, said the order does not go far enough. McKenna said the majority of teachers are in favor of a full, K-12 mask mandate.

“The order fails to protect our unvaccinated children, and it is more reactionary than preventative,” she said. “And it puts our young people in a very difficult position.”

McKenna said kids are facing social pressure not to wear masks and that it’s unfair to put the onus on them to overcome that pressure for their own safety. When school started Monday, she estimated about 10% of PCHS students were wearing masks. Now, she said, that number is already far lower.

“We are dealing with a much more transmissible variant and we are allowing it to spread unnecessarily,” McKenna said. “We had a mask mandate in place last year and it worked.”

Greg Hatfield, a parent of two children in the district and a nurse at the pediatric intensive care unit at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, expressed frustration with the County Council for even opening the mandate up to public comment.

“Masking and public health measures are not a matter of opinion,” he said. “They are a matter of science.”

Hatfield said last winter the normally busy ICU at Primary Children’s was practically empty of kids with respiratory illnesses of any kind.

“The only thing we could conclude was that people were universally masking and this was preventing the spread of not just COVID but all respiratory viruses that we usually see,” he said.

Hatfield said the delta variant is “orders of magnitude” more contagious than last winter’s strain.

“This variant is not the same as last winter’s COVID,” he said. “We should be extremely concerned about the way we have opened schools.”

Hatfield, like McKenna, was critical of the county’s order.

“I don’t understand how as a public health measure we should wait until we see a surge of the virus … before starting to initiate preventative measures,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted Bridget Brown as saying “masks and facts,” when she actually said “masks and vax.”

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