SALT LAKE CITY – The governor of Utah said Thursday that the state has no plans to require masks for students in K-12 schools next fall, after months of mounting pressure from the from parents calling for the end of the mandate.
Republican Gov. Spencer Cox has previously defended his administration’s decision to make masks mandatory in schools this school year against parental protests, but now says rising state immunization rates indicate districts are ready to limit restrictions.
“We now have the ability for those who have concerns about the virus to protect themselves a lot more,” Cox told The Associated Press. âWe have better masks available and opportunities for people to make those decisions.â
Dozens of districts across the country have already abandoned mask warrants, and many other districts have indicated they are unlikely to need them next fall. At least half of the states still have statewide mask mandates, and many school districts still need masks. School tracking site Burbio found that 62% of schools offered in-person learning every day at the end of April.
As recently as last month, the governor of Utah said that if the state removed masks “there are a whole bunch of vulnerable children and vulnerable parents who should take their children out of school and we don’t want that to happen, âDeseret Cox said Thursday that was no longer a major concern as cases plummeted.
Cox said students who are at higher risk can protect themselves by wearing N95 masks at school or by using distance learning if their school offers it. These decisions will be up to families rather than government, he said.
âThere will certainly be opportunities to welcome those who are struggling or worried about it, but we hope thatâ¦ when we get back to school at the end of August, that won’t be a concern. not most families, âCox says.
Requiring masks in schools has been controversial for parents in Utah over the past year. Granite School District board members were forced to adjourn a meeting and call the police on Tuesday after 30 to 40 anti-mask parents started shouting. In November, protesters who called the masks at school “child abuse” disrupted another district meeting in American Fork.
Lifting the mask warrants now would be a mistake, and over the summer there should be serious discussions on safety benchmarks for the fall, said Adam Hersh, professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah.
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. Children generally do not have a choice of where to attend school in the same way that adults can choose where to shop. The school is also where people spend hours indoors, which creates more potential for exposure.
âI think there is a moral obligation to ensure that schools are as safe as possible,â he said.
Hersh worked on a study that showed transmission rates are very low, below 1%, in schools with precautions such as masks and distancing.
There is little data on maskless school settings, but there are disturbing indications of the start of the pandemic, including when Israel lifted a mask warrant during a heat wave in the summer of 2020 and rates of transmission raised at a summer camp in Georgia.
Some of those risks are now lower as vaccination rates increase among U.S. adults, but vaccines have not been approved for children under 16. That seems likely to change by the next school year, as the FDA is expected to approve the use of the Pfizer vaccine. in children from the age of 12 years.
Utah lifted its statewide mask mandate on April 10, but a mask order for K-12 schools ends on June 15, when most districts have dropped out for the summer.
It’s unclear whether districts or schools will be able to impose their own mask rules, but Cox said the legislature may meet to reinstate some restrictions if the cases reappear.
Eppolito is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, nonprofit service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on secret issues.