SALT LAKE CITY — After weeks of refusing to lift the mask mandate in schools, Governor Spencer Cox announced he would end the requirement that all K-12 students must wear face coverings in classrooms — but only for the last week of the school year.
"Masks are still encouraged," the governor said in announcing the change at his weekly news conference on the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to lifting it for only the last week of the school year, Gov. Cox allowed local school districts to keep the mask requirement in place if they wanted to. In recent weeks, the Morgan and Washington County school boards have opted to remove the requirement and make it a "recommendation," despite a public health order requiring masks.
Many school districts contacted by FOX 13 after Cox's announcement said they will follow the governor's direction and allow their students to go without a mask.
Following the end of the statewide mask mandate last month, the restrictions had remained in place for students and school staff, causing controversy in some districts. Anti-mask parents loudly disrupted a Granite School District meeting last week, and had encouraged other parents to do the same in their districts. Through all of that, Gov. Cox refused to lift the K-12 mask mandate.
The governor cited a decline in COVID-19 cases overall and the decision by the CDC to allow children 12 to 15 years-old to get the Pfizer vaccine as a reason why he changed his mind.
"We are thoughtful about what we do," he told reporters.
The governor still encouraged people to wear masks if they have not been vaccinated and in schools. But he said the state is making progress in vaccinating youth above the age of 16, which had been a big contributed to novel coronavirus spread.
"At some point we have to move out of this," he said of the pandemic.
Dr. Michelle Hofmann, the deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, said she believed people would still wear masks.
"We know that it doesn't take a mandate in order to get people to wear masks. We ended the statewide mask mandate over a month ago and we still see people wearing masks," she said.
Still, Dr. Hofmann acknowledged concern about ending the K-12 mask mandate. She said the governor did consider a number of viewpoints before making his decision. She said parents need to have discussions with their children about whether they feel safe in the classroom without masks.
In his meeting with President Biden earlier this week, the governor asked the White House to model what a fully vaccinated person can do and the freedoms that come with it. On Thursday, the CDC changed its guidelines to allow fully vaccinated people to go without masks in situations indoors and outdoors where there is no masks.
On Thursday, Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson announced that Utah's COVID-19 Unified Command, which has been overseeing the state's response to the pandemic, will start to dissolve. The Utah Department of Health, which had joint leadership with Utah's Department of Public Safety, will now take over.