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Governor says Utah won't mandate masks in schools next fall

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

People protest students wearing masks to school during a rally on Saturday, April 10, 2021, in Farmington, Utah. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday, May 6, 2021, he has no plans to renew the state's mask order for K-12 schools next fall, following months of mounting pressure from parents calling for the mandate's end. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah's governor said Thursday the state has no plans to require masks for students in K-12 schools next fall, following months of mounting pressure from parents calling for the mandate's end.

Republican Gov. Spencer Cox has previously defended his administration’s decision to mandate masks in schools this school year against parent protests, but now says the state's rising vaccination rates indicate that districts are prepared to limit restrictions.

“We now have the ability for those that have concerns about the virus to protect ourselves much more,” Cox told The Associated Press. “We have better masks available and opportunities for people to make those decisions.”

Dozens of districts nationwide have already dropped mask mandates and many more districts have indicated they are likely to not require them next fall. At least half of states still have statewide mask mandates in place, and many school districts still require masks. The school-tracking site Burbio found 62% of schools were offering in-person learning every day by late April.

As recently as last month, Utah's governor said that if the state removed masks “there are a whole bunch of vulnerable kids and vulnerable parents who would have to take their kids out of school and we don’t want that to happen," the Deseret News reported. Cox said Thursday that’s no longer a major concern as cases drop.

Cox said that students who are at a higher risk can protect themselves by wearing N95 masks to school or utilizing remote learning if their school offers it. Those decisions will be up to families rather than the government, he said.

“There will certainly be opportunities to accommodate those who may be struggling or are worried about that but our hope is that … by the time we’re back in school by the end of August that that won’t be a concern for most families,” Cox said.

Requiring masks in schools has been contentious for Utah parents over the last year. Granite School District board members were forced to adjourn a meeting and call police Tuesday after 30 to 40 anti-mask parents began shouting. In November, protesters who characterized masks in school as “child abuse” disrupted another district meeting in American Fork.

Lifting mask mandates now would be a mistake, and over the summer there should be serious conversations about safe benchmarks for the fall, said Adam Hersh, a University of Utah professor of pediatric infectious diseases.

In some ways, when it comes to COVID-19 precautions, a school is more like a hospital or doctor’s office than a grocery store, he said. Kids don’t generally have choices about where they attend school in the same way adults can choose where to shop. School is also where people spend hours indoors, creating more potential for exposure.

“I think there’s a moral obligation to ensure schools are as safe as possible,” he said.

Hersh worked on a study that showed transmission rates are very low, under 1%, at schools with precautions like masks and distancing.

There’s little data on school settings without masks, but there are troubling indications from earlier in the pandemic, including when Israel lifted a mask mandate during a heatwave in summer 2020 and high transmission rates at a summer camp in Georgia.

Some of those risks are lower now as vaccination rates rise among U.S. adults, but shots haven’t been approved for kids younger than 16. That appears likely to change by next school year, as the FDA is expected to approve use of the Pfizer vaccine among kids as young as 12.

Younger children, though, likely won’t have access by next school year. And though children overall aren’t considered as vulnerable to the coronavirus, there are indications that variants like the one first identified in the U.K. are a bigger threat. While children formed a small portion of cases early on, they’re making up a greater portion of case counts, in line with their share of the population, as more adults get vaccinated and variants become more prevalent.

Utah lifted its statewide mask mandate on April 10, but a mask order for K-12 schools ends June 15, when most districts have let out for summer.

It is unclear if districts or schools will be able to impose their own mask rules, but Cox said the Legislature could convene to reinstate some restrictions if cases surge again.

The Utah Education Association said in a statement that mask requirements for teachers, staff and students “should remain in place until public health experts signal is it safe to remove them.”

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Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.