Washington County schools stand firm on mask mandate while other Southern Utah districts adjust exemptions

ST. GEORGE — While the statewide mask mandate in public schools remains in effect until June 15, school districts throughout Southern Utah have been weighing parents’ concerns and possible health consequences as they consider consider modifying mask exemptions. Washington County School District, however, stands firm.

Protestors with the #seemysmile movement gather to voice their opposition outside a meeting of the board of education, St. George, Utah, April 26, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

At Monday’s special meeting of the Washington County School District Board of Education, a group of 20-30 protestors, including children, gathered outside the district offices in opposition of the ongoing mask mandate. 

Steve Hirschi, a Washington County resident with children in the local school district, saw a post on Facebook organizing like-minded people to demonstrate. He said he was motivated by his fervor for personal liberties and he was strongly opposed to masks in schools.

“It’s a freedom they’re taking away from us,” Hirschi said. “They’re taking away our identities with the mask. We’re given our agency, and it’s a First Amendment right to do and say what we want as long as it’s peaceful.”

The Washington County School District will continue to abide by the state health directive requiring masks in school, requiring documentation from a health professional appropriate to the condition allowing exemption (i.e. a psychologist or therapist for a mental exemption, a general practice doctor for a medical exemption, etc.), said Steven Dunham, district communications director.

A large electronic display mounted on a truck encourages the board of education to “unmask our smiles,” St. George, Utah, April 26, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Masks were not discussed at length during the meeting, and were not part of the planned agenda. Near the meeting’s close, Washington County School District Superintendent Larry Bergeson reviewed the COVID-19 pandemic data related to employees and students. 

“As long as we have masks, those numbers stays down,” Bergeson said. “Our average, when we did not have masks, was 10 (students quarantined) per student in isolation, so if we had 70 students in isolation we had 700 quarantined. By far the largest number of kids that were out of school for the two-week time period was on quarantine.”

Kane, San Juan and now Iron County have officially passed measures adjusting mask exemption requirements. Iron County School District’s Board of Education passed three separate motions clarifying district policy on mask exemptions Tuesday evening, all by votes of 4-1, with the lone dissenter being Board President Michelle Lambert.

The new resolutions allow employees and students to qualify for exemption for a mental health condition or intellectual or developmental disability by submitting a signed form from a parent or guardian (in the case of a student) or submitting the form themselves (in the case of an employee).

Shannon Dulaney, superintendent for the Iron County School District, said she felt it was important to remind parents that all of the other standards and requirements with the state health order will remain the same.

“So if we have children that are in contact with one another and they’re not wearing masks, parents need to know we still have to follow the order and require that they quarantine,” she said. “We may have more children and teachers in quarantine.”

The push to adjust mask exemptions in Kane County and Iron County was influenced by the #seemysmile movement championed by the Utah Parent’s United nonprofit organization. The movement has been active throughout Utah, and especially visible recently in Southern Utah.

As of April 13, the Kane County School District has instituted a modified mask exemption to the ongoing public order for masks in school. The district’s new policy allows parents to authorize a mask exemption for their children in the case of medical condition, mental health condition or intellectual or developmental disability.

A copy of the form distributed to parents allowing them to exempt their children from the mask mandate in schools, Kanab, Utah, April 27, 2021 | Courtesy of Kane County School District, St. George News

Superintendent Ben Dalton said the decision was made after thorough review of the state public health order and after seeking legal counsel.

“Overall, most of our parents, staff and parents have been supportive of the changes to the medical mask exemption,” Dalton said. “We don’t anticipate the medical mask exemption to change schools or the daily learning instructional processes.”

The state’s educational mask mandate is outlined in Public Health Order 2021-2. The directive states that schools “may require” a medical directive from a licensed health professional such as a doctor or physician’s assistant, but does not mandate schools do so.

So far, state education officials have not expressed any issues with the school district’s modified mask exemption, Dalton said. As a whole, the county has bucked statewide mandates for mask use – preferring instead to allow local leaders to control restrictions.

In the Washington County School District, there were four employees and two students in isolation due to a positive COVID-19 test and zero employees and seven students in quarantine due to possible exposure, as of Monday.

Kane County schools reported active cases among students or staff, and no individuals currently in quarantine as of Monday. Iron County’s latest numbers, shared last Friday, indicated 10 active cases among students and staff and 43 individuals currently in quarantine.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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