Alexander: Leave Mask Mandates Up to Health Officials, Not School Boards


Tom Denton

East High School’s mask reminder in March 2021. (Photo by Tom Denton | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By CJ Alexander, Opinion Editor


At a crucial time during the world-stopping coronavirus pandemic, when the United States has reached over 521,000 deaths, we should be trying our best to uphold safety precautions and mask mandates. But safety measures such as mask-wearing are being questioned here in Utah. Through S.B. 187, lawmakers transferred the final power over mask mandates to school administrators and school boards under the pretense of giving schools more choice and authority. These administrators will have to consult with their local health departments about regulating face masks, but ultimately, the school officials will get to choose whether to continue or discontinue mask mandates. That’s incredibly concerning. Health officials should have the final say on mask mandates within school districts and everywhere.

There is no shortage of sources emphasizing the effectiveness of face masks against transmission of the coronavirus. Research studies by the CDC, John Hopkins University and multiple other scientific centers have provided us with facts and data to help us limit the spread of COVID-19 over the past year. In light of that, the concerns outlined in S.B. 187 are flagrantly absurd, and any attempts to lift the mask mandate right now demonstrate leaders’ incompetence and refusal to acknowledge expert opinions. Neither a few cases of mask irritation, pressure from anti-maskers nor low transmission levels in small school districts are valid reasons to lift mask mandates. It is still critical to regulate and mandate mask-wearing, which continues to help the declining rate of COVID-19 cases. We’ll beat the virus and return to normal life much faster if we leave the health decisions to the health experts — who believe in face masks.

Emily Spivak, a University of Utah doctor and infectious disease specialist, agrees. In an interview, Spivak explained the urgency of continuing the mask mandates. If lifted too soon, she said, “It’s like getting to the ten-yard line in a football game and celebrating.” Prolonging this pandemic is the last thing we want to do, but we keep going through the motions only to reel backward when cases start spiking. We’ve seen other states and our own counties lift restrictions too early and have case numbers get worse than before, yet we keep repeating this process. As Spivak pointed out, “The masks are what is doing most of the work right now. As far as that and getting our immunity level up, the masks really need to be the last thing to go if we want to get this under control and get back to normal.” Now, when we are in a much better position than we have been since the fall, it’s essential to listen to the warnings and advice of health experts if we want to resume daily activities like schooling.

No one can doubt the important part schools play in providing a sense of normalcy — not to mention an education — for millions of students across the country. But for these institutions to remain open, school leaders must acknowledge the effectiveness of health officials’ guidelines. Spivak said, “My nephew is scared to go back to school, but we never experienced that because our kids were going to school with masks on. I think we’re in a very privileged position here that people are just totally taking that for granted.” We cannot jeopardize this essential service on the mere premise of “freedom of choice” when it’s not our own freedom at stake, but someone else’s health and future. If we want to bring schools back to in-person operations, we need to do so according to health officials’ expertise, not an individual school’s or administrator’s preference.

It’s no secret that the pandemic has taken a huge toll on people across the country. All of our lives came to a grinding halt last year, and students took an immeasurable hit. And in a state where education is a common and top priority, we should strive to offer effective schooling methods. But we cannot keep K-12 schools open and functioning by calling into question the very safeguard protecting these institutions from closing. Keeping mask mandates in schools, even in low transmission level areas, is vital for the continuation of some normalcy during this historic period. Listening to expert advice is how we can recover from this crisis and disposing of health official expertise in such a crucial time would be absolutely senseless. Whatever our school officials decide, we all must wear a mask and wear it correctly, as per Dr. Spivak’s advice, if we ever hope to beat COVID-19.


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