SALT LAKE CITY – A ban on school districts requiring masks is forcing parents of vulnerable kids to wrestle with the painful choice of whether to risk coronavirus infections at school or keep them at home yet again, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in Utah.
Parents like Jessica Pyper say a Utah law that blocks districts from passing mandates wrongly prevents children from getting a safe education. She wants her 10-year-old son Ryker to join his fifth grade classmates this year, but his Type 1 diabetes puts him at serious risk.
“It just sort of seems like nobody cares," she said. “Kids with disabilities often get left behind. They don’t get considered when these types of decisions are being made."
The case filed by a group of nine parents is the latest U.S. lawsuit of its kind from families and educators concerned about school without masks as the highly contagious delta variant surges. Similar cases have been filed in Arizona, Texas and Florida, where thousands of students have already been sent home in rapidly spreading outbreaks.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for universal masking in schools, but amid contentious anti-mask protests, several conservative-leaning states are blocking mask mandates.
Officials, mostly Republican, contend that there are downsides to kids being masked all day and parents should have the power to decide whether to put them on children, who tend to be less vulnerable to the virus than older adults.
The Utah lawsuit was filed against Republicans Gov. Spencer Cox and Attorney General Sean Reyes, who both declined to comment.
Utah schools were open for in-person learning with a statewide mask mandate last year, but after the mandate ended the GOP-dominated Legislature decided individual school districts couldn't require face coverings on their own.
Without masks and other protective steps, coronavirus infections could spread rapidly among kids who are too young to get vaccinated and could bring it home to their families, experts have said. Masks are an effective tool against the spread of the coronavirus, but work best when everyone uses them, research has found.
Even as the delta variant has surged in Utah, filling hospitals beyond capacity, just one small school district has navigated the legal hurdles to require masks in the southern Utah tourist mecca of Grand County. An attempt to require masks in Salt Lake County was overturned by the Republican-controlled county council.
Many schools are encouraging students to wear masks, though, and in some parts of the state many are doing so.
But in Brad Plothow’s conservative community of Lehi, south of Salt Lake City, few students except his own children have been wearing them in the classroom, he said. He and his wife home-schooled all four of their children last year, but his older children especially missed their friends and pined for school milestones like getting lockers for the first time.
So they sent their older children to school, both wearing masks. They installed air purifiers and filters at home in hopes of protecting their younger children, one of whom has fairly severe asthma.
Plothow said it was frustrating to watch state leaders abandon steps he said largely worked to keep schools open and safe last year.
“We’re not activists, we’re not political, we’re not partisan ... where we draw the line is when you mess around with the kids,” he said. “This should not be a political football.”