Park City teachers ask County Council to mandate masks in schools |

Park City teachers ask County Council to mandate masks in schools

Summit County’s authority to require face coverings remains unclear

Students, wearing masks, line up outside McPolin Elementary School on the first day of class in 2020. The leaders of the largest teacher's union in Park City on Wednesday called on the Summit County Council to mandate masks in schools for the upcoming academic year. County officials, however, say they lack the authority to do so.
Park Record file photo

A group of parents and teachers, including representatives of the Park City teachers unions, asked the Summit County Council on Wednesday to impose a mask mandate in the area’s schools.

Jake Jobe and Mary Morgan, co-presidents of the Park City Education Association, the largest union that represents teachers in the Park City School District, advocated for the mandate during the public input portion of the council’s meeting less than a week before schools were set to reopen.

“We are here this evening to urge the council to support a mask mandate in pre-K-12 schools of Park City School District and also to urge the state school board to do the same,” Jobe said. “PCEA believes a mandate will best keep students, teachers and families healthy and will keep schools open.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended mask-wearing for students in grades K-12, as has Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough.

“I support masks in schools, flat out,” Bullough said.

He contrasted that with a broader, countywide mask mandate, which he said is not warranted.

“Our numbers in Summit County are still pretty good,” he said.

The county has been averaging about five cases per day, he said. In August, that number is about eight cases per day, according to county data.

It is unclear whether the county has the authority to mandate masks in schools, however. The Summit County Attorney’s Office has advised local officials that they do not.

​​”We’re not in a place where we believe we have the authority to issue an order,” Bullough said. “Our goal is to get to a place where we have that in our quiver (so that) if we believe it’s an emergency, and we believe we need a mask order, we’d have the ability to do one.”

State lawmakers earlier this year forbade education officials, including school districts, from imposing mask mandates.

Some have suggested that counties — in conjunction with local health departments — retain the authority to mandate masks in schools. A mask mandate would require the consent of a county’s executive, health officer and legislative body.

The Summit County Attorney’s Office, however, said that could only be done with the consent of the Utah State Board of Education. Further muddying the waters is the text of the law, which states “the state board, the state superintendent, or a school may not require an individual to wear a face covering to attend” school or participate in a school-sponsored extracurricular activity.

Salt Lake County’s recent effort to impose a mandate did not shed much light on the process.

The Salt Lake County health director and executive signed off on a mask mandate for grades K-6, but the Salt Lake County Council terminated the order Thursday. It is unclear what would have happened if the council had not acted or supported the order.

While the process remains convoluted, Bullough indicated the measure at the heart of it is crucial.

“We have large numbers of people in school that are unvaccinated. … Delta changes the game,” he said, referring to the more transmissible coronavirus variant that is spreading in Utah and elsewhere.

He said that other districts that have reopened across the country have seen outbreaks of COVID-19 and that he has no reason to think the situation locally would be different.

“That, to me, would be a truly dire situation: an outbreak, a true outbreak in schools, cases are surging, kids can’t be in school,” he said, adding that the consensus is that kids do best when learning in schools. “… At that point in time, we’re in a tough position because it would have to be a reactive measure.”

Wednesday’s hour-long discussion came during the public comment portion of the County Council’s meeting.

The discussion was not on the council’s agenda, but roughly 60 people came to the meeting, according to county officials, filling the council chambers at the Sheldon Richins County Services Building at Kimball Junction.

Summit County Sheriff’s Office deputies were on hand.

Nearly 30 people spoke, their comments punctuated by sometimes enthusiastic applause. The vast majority of comments supported a mask mandate. A smaller contingent represented the opposite viewpoint, with one woman saying the issue was about freedom of choice and censorship.

Other opponents claimed negative health effects related to mask-wearing and indicated that health effects in children sickened by COVID-19 are being overblown.

“Our children are going to be OK,” one said.

Another man, who supported the mask mandate, said his teenage daughter contracted COVID-19 in September and is still suffering the effects.

“I wish my daughter could smile every day and know that she’s going to wake up healthy,” he said.

Multiple teachers spoke in favor of the mandate.

Though the energy in the room appeared charged, the meeting did not have the level of discord present at other meetings around the state that have devolved into screaming matches when the topic has been discussed.

At one point, Councilor Doug Clyde asked the crowd to hold its applause so that others could speak without fear of intimidation. After the comments concluded, Councilor Malena Stevens thanked the crowd for its civility.

Wright said the council had been discussing the issue and hadn’t reached a conclusive position. Councilors continue to seek information about how the council could proceed within the strictures of the new state law.

According to Chief Civil Deputy Attorney Dave Thomas, it would be possible for county officials to issue an “order of constraint,” which could include a mask mandate, but that order could not extend to schools without consent from the Utah State Board of Education.

“It is the opinion of the County Attorney’s Office that the public health officer and the County Manager do not have the constitutional authority to order a mask mandate for public schools absent consent of the Utah State Board of Education,” Thomas wrote in an email to The Park Record.

He wrote that the state board has exclusive control and supervision over the public education system. When a Health Department crew inspects a school kitchen, for example, they are doing so with the consent of the state board.

The attorney’s position does not preclude the possibility of the county presenting such an order to the state board for its consent.

At the meeting on Wednesday, one speaker, who identified herself as a parent of students, advocated for officials to mandate masks until children younger than 12 are authorized to be vaccinated.

“We’re just asking you to buy us some time,” she said. “… Just buy us some time so that those of us who want to get our kids vaccinated can get them vaccinated.”

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