SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers are scrutinizing the ongoing mask mandate for K-12 schools, but it is unlikely the controversial measure will be repealed before the end of the school year.
The Utah State Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee grilled Dr. Sydnee Dickson, the state superintendent for public instruction, and Dr. Michelle Hofmann, the deputy director of the Utah Department of Health about the mandate.
"Our children in Utah have been in school for eight months longer than most children in the United States because of these policies," Dr. Hofmann said, defending the K-12 mask mandate as a low-cost way to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The Utah Department of Health issued a public health order requiring masks in classrooms to prevent spread of the virus, especially in middle and high schools that ultimately spread to other parts of the community. Conservative groups and some parents have been pushing for an end to the mask mandate in classrooms. They have claimed some victories with schools in Kane and Iron counties, but lawmakers were told those exceptions still were within the confines of COVID-19 public health orders and the law.
But lawmakers questioned the necessity of the policy, given that a lot of educators are now vaccinated and virus cases are low to non-existent in schools. Others questioned why local school districts can't make decisions on their own.
"You’re a non-elected official. That means you’re not directly accountable to the citizens who gave you the power to act," Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, said.
Rep. Nelson Abbott, R-Orem, asked why a place like Piute County, which has only two schools with no cases, has to keep requiring masks.
"Why can’t we allow those two schools to make their own decision given the fact they haven’t had any positive cases over the last 14-days in their county?" he asked.
Dr. Hofmann acknowledged they were moving out of the pandemic, and no cases in some schools is good.
"For me the question then becomes are we close enough to the end that we just hold the course that we’ve been on versus pivoting with one month left?" she said.
Other lawmakers also defended the policy. Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, who has recovered from COVID-19, said her 6-year-old now has long-term health effects from the virus. In emotional comments to her colleagues, she said children could still be impacted by the virus.
"This is a real disease and I know as legislators, we have to make decisions for the entire state of Utah," Sen. Escamilla said. "But children can have devastating impacts from the illness."
Governor Spencer Cox told reporters on Thursday he did not intend to lift the K-12 mask mandate. He pointed out that the "COVID-19 Endgame" bill passed by the legislature (that lifted the statewide mask mandate) intentionally left schools out.
"There are still some outbreaks happening in schools," he said. "If kids don’t have masks, they have to miss school for a couple of weeks. That’s what we don’t want to happen."
While members of the Administrative Rules Committee vented about the policy, they adjourned without taking any action. That means the mask mandate for K-12 schools is likely to remain in place.
Committee Chair Brady Brammer told FOX 13 he still hoped the state would still offer some flexibility as the school year winds down.
"I don’t think it’s a difficult fix to allow for some flexibility," he said. "Especially as we’re coming up on different graduation, dances, things like that if it can be done safely."