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Bill allowing schools to opt out of mask mandate gets favorable recommendation

A new bill would give school districts in Utah the option to no longer enforce mask mandates. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias, File)

SALT LAKE CITY — A new bill would give Utah schools the option to no longer enforce a mask mandate, handing that decision back to individual school districts rather than the governor or state health department.

The original draft of the legislation proposed that districts wouldn’t have to follow any of the state mandates or public health orders. But that language was amended before passing its Senate committee, softening the requirements. 

Potentially ignoring the mask mandate

SB187 — after the substitutions were made from Sen. Ron Winterton, R-Roosevelt — passed Thursday through the Senate Health and Human Services Committee on a 5-to-2 vote. The bill requires the governor or local health department to consult with the individual school districts before issuing new orders. 

While the district would have the final say in implementing its own mask policy, the legislation would allow schools in areas with lower transmission numbers to opt of of the statewide mask mandate. 

“What this bill does is it’s trying to put this decision back with the local school districts,” Winterton said during the committee meeting Thursday. “They were afraid to do anything last year. How do you operate while looking over your shoulder the whole time?”

Winterton argued that some rural school districts were afraid to voice their concerns out of fear of lost funding when the original mask mandate was issued in July 2020 by then-Gov. Gary Herbert.

“What they were looking at is if you’re not compliant, we’ll hold your funding or the local health department will come shut you down and shut down the schools,” he explained.

Additionally, he said some principals and educators reached out to him asking for more control over their health orders.

“When you get down to these smaller schools, I think it is only prudent that we allow them to make that decision,” Winterton said.

Parent testifies in favor of bill

During the committee meeting Thursday, Tristan Trout, a single mother of three from Vernal, argued in favor of the bill. Because of mask mandates, she’s had to pull one of her sons out of school because of allergic reactions to face coverings. 

“I’ve had to take him out of school. At first, I thought he was having some kind of reaction to something at home or some kind of environmental reaction. He went into anaphylactic shock at one point, I had to rush him to the ER,” she said. “It took about a week to clear up. He missed a week of school. After it cleared up, I sent him back to school. I’ve tried several different masks, I always wash them. The day I sent him back to school, the same thing happened.” 

Trout shared photos of her son during the meeting, documenting his red face with swollen eyelids. Despite prescribing medication and sending him back to school three times, Trout said he experienced the same allergic reaction each time. 

The Utah Department of Health already offers exemptions for cases like these, waiving the mandate for kids who have allergies or asthma. 

Health departments weigh in

Speaking earlier this month, local health officials indicated that most school districts already consult with health departments before making any public safety decisions.

“They rely on us as a local health department to provide them with the expertise and the guidance that they need to ensure their students are in a healthy and safe environment,” said Salt Lake County Health Department Spokesperson Nicholas Rupp. “They don’t have a mechanism to get public-health recommendations and public-health guidance, except through us.”

With that in mind, the Salt Lake County Health Department has not taken a position on the bill.

The committee eventually gave the bill a favorable recommendation and it will now go back to the full Senate for consideration.