When approximately 12,000 students return to classrooms at two dozen public schools across Box Elder County next week, things are likely to look quite different from a year ago.
Another school year is set to begin under a cloud of uncertainty amid a resurgence of COVID-19 infections. But unlike last fall, students in the Box Elder School District will not be required to wear facemasks while attending classes, socializing in the hallways, or participating in school-related activities. Many teachers, staff and older students are now vaccinated, and state lawmakers have put restrictions on mask requirements, limiting the power of local health and education authorities to require specific precautions and safety measures.
Changes enacted by the Utah Legislature in a special session earlier this year stripped local health departments and school boards of the ability to enforce mask-wearing mandates, placing that authority in the hands of local governments instead.
The issue has been playing out recently in the Salt Lake area, where a mask mandate issued by the county health department for students in kindergarten through the sixth grade was overridden by a vote of the county council two weeks ago. In response, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall late last week issued a mask mandate for all K-12 schools located within city limits, citing her emergency authority as mayor.
While a health department can still issue a mandate, such a move cannot take effect without the blessing of the local government entity in charge. In Box Elder, that means the county board of commissioners would have to sign off on any mandate — something its members have expressed reluctance to do, at least under current conditions.
“I’m not a big fan of mandates,” Commissioner Stan Summers, who is also president of the Utah Association of Counties, said at a county commission meeting last week.
County Commissioner Jeff Scott, who also sits on the board of directors for the Bear River Health Department, said he and other officials have received “a number of questions about masks and mandates, especially with the school year coming up.”
Scott issued a statement on July 30 encouraging Box Elder County residents “to make the best decision for themselves and their families,” and addressed the issue again at last week’s meeting.
“We’re doing the best we can to keep everybody happy and healthy, and at the same time trying not to disrupt peoples’ lives more than needs to be done,” he said.
There has been a notable uptick in COVID-19 infections recently in the county, with a seven-day average of nearly 18 new cases per day at the end of last week and four more deaths so far in August, bringing the total number of deaths attributed to the illness among Box Elder residents to 65, according to Bear River Health Department statistics.
Just under 45% of Box Elder County residents aged 12 and older had been vaccinated as of last week, compared with more than 59% statewide.
While acknowledging the recent surge, Scott reiterated the position that mask wearing should be a personal choice, and pleaded for people on both sides of the issue to respect individual decisions.
“If you’re concerned, wear a mask,” he said. “If you don’t want to wear one, don’t. It’s still America.”
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has said he has no plans to issue a statewide mandate, and bristled at a letter last week from the federal Department of Education suggesting that legal action could be forthcoming against states, including Utah, that have moved to limit the power of health and education officials to issue rules meant to limit the spread of coronavirus.
In light of Utah’s new rule regarding mask mandates, local health and education officials have been busy crafting a set of recommendations for students, faculty and staff to limit the spread of COVID-19.
At the Box Elder School District Board of Education’s monthly meeting in August, Superintendent Steve Carlsen outlined the district’s response plan for the school year.
In addition to encouraging vaccinations and masks whenever possible, the plan, crafted in consultation with the local health department, outlines procedures for when someone in the classroom tests positive. When that happens, the affected school will send out an email letting parents know that someone in their child’s classroom tested positive, without identifying who that person is, and recommending that students either wear a mask or stay home for 10 days, or for seven days followed by a negative COVID-19 test.
If a school reaches a threshold at which 2% or more of everyone at the school has tested positive, the recommendations include a “test to stay” protocol in which students are encouraged to show a negative test in order to continue attending classes in person. In the event of a “test to stay” situation, the Bear River Health Department has a mobile unit that it will deploy at Bear River and Box Elder high schools to provide on-site testing.
The recommendations do not apply to those who have been fully vaccinated, are voluntarily wearing a mask on a regular basis, or have had COVID-19 in the past 90 days.
Because the school district’s plan is a set of recommendations and not enforceable, it’s up to parents to make the right call for their school-aged children, school board President Julie Taylor said.
“Parents have a lot of responsibility this year,” Taylor said. “We’re in the business of educating children and we want them there, we want them healthy, and we want them able to learn.”