‘People are going to die.’ Park City students walk out to protest lawmakers’ attempt to end Summit County’s mask mandate.
PCHS students characterize legislation as irresponsible and dangerous
Droves of Park City High School students braved the cold on Thursday morning to send a clear message to state leaders: They fully support the mask mandate in Summit County.
More than 100 high schoolers walked out of their classes at 9:15 a.m. as part of a demonstration organized in response to a bill in the state Legislature aimed at the county’s COVID response. State senators passed a joint resolution on Tuesday night, during the first day of the legislative session, that would rescind public health orders connected to face coverings. Summit County is one of the only places in the state with a mask requirement in place, along with Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City.
Chris Henry, a junior at Park City High School, was already organizing a protest with a few classmates over the suspension of Utah’s test-to-stay program, which came after the state’s testing resources reached capacity and amid a growing number of cases in schools. But when news of the Senate vote broke, the group’s focus pivoted and they used social media to put out a call to action to their peers.
“We are here because the state Senate passed a bill that will eliminate masks despite our county being one of the worst in the nation for COVID,” Henry said to the crowd Thursday. “I don’t want to choose between the health and safety of my family and coming to school. People are going to die as a result of this bill.”
Henry, who said that he has immunocompromised people in his family, was referencing data from the New York Times last week that ranked Summit County as having the fifth-highest rate in the country for COVID cases per 100,000 residents. At the time, there were 469 reported cases for every 100,000 people in the county. In New York City, the rate was 482 cases per 100,000 people.
Speaking to the crowd, the junior said that if the Utah House of Representatives passes the joint resolution, students would be “completely defenseless against COVID” and could be forced to choose between getting sick and attending class.
Senior Carly McAleer told the crowd they believe officials made a critical mistake when masks were first introduced as a tool to fight the pandemic. Rather than emphasizing how they could be used to protect and take care of others, lawmakers highlighted how they would keep the wearer safe. To some, McAleer said, masks have become a political statement rather than a means to keep other people safe.
“If you choose not to wear a mask, you’re putting someone else at risk,” McAleer said. They continued that with changing guidelines and the omicron surge, people who don’t wear masks aren’t thinking of people like Henry or the community’s overall health. “Don’t make mask-wearing selfish. Don’t make it a political statement. Don’t threaten someone else’s life.”
The senior encouraged students to consider who they are coming in contact with every day, from friends to teachers to public workers in the county, and then the people that those individuals encounter, when they decide to wear a mask.
Jace Deininger, also a senior, directed his message during the demonstration to officials on Capitol Hill.
He said the coronavirus pandemic should not be a partisan issue and that the virus doesn’t care about any individual’s political affiliation — it just wants to infect.
Deininger characterized lawmakers as irresponsible for attempting to revoke Summit County’s mask mandate and strip control from local officials.
Student organizers reminded their classmates that legislative elections will be held on Nov. 8 and directed them to several signs with QR codes that would help them register to vote. They also encouraged attendees to email, call or write their representatives in support of the mask mandate.
“The state is putting Park City and Summit County at risk,” Deininger said. “Let’s put people in office that will protect us.”
Olivia Brown, a junior, added that there are other important issues besides masks when it comes to pandemic response as absences grow among the student and teacher population and the Park City School District scrambles to address the situation.
And while the students blasted lawmakers, they also recognized that part of the issue lies with their classmates.
The event’s organizers told The Park Record that many students wear masks incorrectly or do not wear them at all. The group sympathized with teachers who are trying their best to enforce the rules while also fearing fallout from parents or members of the community who oppose the mandate.
“Teachers are constantly reminding everyone to wear their masks but some people have a ‘do what I want’ attitude,” Deininger told The Park Record following the demonstration. “That starts at home.”
The group was initially hopeful that the Park City Board of Education would move classes online this week to help reset the school’s case count but understands the pressure district leaders are under. The board voted last week against temporarily transitioning to remote learning.
However, the students believe that masks being mandated in school will ensure that in-person instruction can continue.
“It’s a simple way to prevent us from going online,” said junior Alex Lopansri.
Jake Jobe, a teacher at Park City High School and the co-president of the Park City Education Association, told The Park Record that the teacher’s union stands in solidarity with the students’ walkout.
“Just as we’ve been teaching through a pandemic the last two years, our students have been learning through one, too. Like us, they are tired and exhausted, but they also recognize the importance of masks as a barrier against Covid-19,” Jobe said in a prepared statement. “They understand, like we do, that our safety as teachers is tied to their safety as students, and our ability to provide the best possible environment for their learning is connected to all of us remaining healthy. For these reasons, we thank the students for demonstrating, raising awareness about the importance of the mask mandate, and sending a message to our state legislature that teachers and students need masks, even temporarily, to teach, learn, and stay healthy together.”
S.J.R. 3, which is sponsored by Sen. Dan McCary, R-Riverton, must be passed by the Utah House of Representatives to take effect. As a joint resolution, it does not require any action from Gov. Spencer Cox.
Park City High School students are planning another demonstration if the legislation passes but remain hopeful that it won’t become law.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with comment from the Park City Education Association.
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