FARMINGTON — As Utah’s statewide mask mandate expired Saturday, dozens of Utahns flocked to school district buildings to push officials to further lift COVID-19 restrictions, starting with schools.
Their goal is to eliminate mask requirements for children in the classroom.
“It’s really just about control; they don’t want to give up that power and control,” said Mike Brown of Bountiful, who has five children attending Davis School District schools. “Really, that’s what the mask is, it’s just a sign of control. If it’s really that safe to be wearing one, why would the governor end the mandate today?”
In August, Brown obtained mask exemptions from the school district for all five of his kids, who range from first to ninth grade. He said two of them still choose to wear masks because they feel pressured by their friends.
“They can be themselves, and things have some semblance of normal, the way it should be,” Brown said, addressing what he sees as the benefits of having a mask exemption. “They haven’t had to be told that they have to wear a mask or they’re going to die, or they’re going to kill their teacher or any of that B.S.”
Around 50 adults, with children in tow, joined him outside the Davis School District administration building in Farmington. Some cars passing by the protest honked as kids held up posters with phrases like “My body, my choice” and “Student lives matter.”
More attended rallies held outside of other district buildings throughout the state, including those of Weber, Canyons and Jordan school districts. At the demonstration held outside the Weber School District administration building in Washington Terrace, there was a “very steady stream of people,” according to Nichole Mason, who helped organize the gathering.
Lisa Fifield, who attended the Farmington protest, said she quit her job at Muir Elementary School in Bountiful teaching fourth graders Mandarin Chinese because of COVID-19 restrictions in schools.
“My fourth grade team told me the first day of school we need to tell the children to keep those masks on their faces so they don’t kill us,” she said. “That’s how abusers are with children.”
As an employee of the school district, she felt her privacy was being violated by having to report personal medical information in order to obtain a mask exemption.
“That is not anybody’s information; that is information you share with your doctor and not with your employer, and not with your children’s school like this,” Fifield said.
Former Gov. Gary Herbert announced a statewide mask mandate as part of a state of emergency declaration on Nov. 9, 2020, but masks have been required in Utah schools since the beginning of the 2020-21 school year under direction from the state health department.
With the Utah State Legislature’s passage of House Bill 294, the health order was set to be lifted Saturday, but the bill says all safety measures in K-12 schools will remain in place. The state issued a health order in January that said masks will continue to be required in schools until at least June 15, and according to a health department document, “local officials, like a school board or county council, do NOT have the legal authority to end the mask requirement in schools before this date.”
Gov. Spencer Cox said at an April 1 coronavirus briefing that he doesn’t plan to lift the school mask rule, noting that it is what allowed Utah to open schools for in-person instruction at the beginning of the academic year.
“If we were to remove masks, there are a whole bunch of vulnerable kids and vulnerable parents who would have to take their kids out of school, and we don’t want that to happen,” Cox said at the briefing. “This is again about keeping kids in school.”
Neither Brown nor Fifield buy that, as Brown accused the governor of using children as “political pawns” and Fifield called him “King Cox,” saying, “It’s not his place to put these rules on the people.”
All rallies were part of the movement See My Smile, organized by a conservative group called Utah Parents United, which advocates for parental choice in education and speaks out against what it deems “progressive” curriculum.
In a continuation of the campaign to eliminate school mask mandates, See My Smile has called on parents to send their children to school on Monday without masks and deliver letters to administrators making that decision known. And according to Corinne Johnson, who is with Utah Parents United, the group will help parents of children who are turned away pursue legal action against their respective school district.
“We have every right to sue our school districts and we will win,” she said. “Courts in the state of Utah side with parents the majority of the time.”
Parents will continue to take their students to school without a mask every day until their students are allowed into their classroom, Johnson said.
Over the last couple of weeks, districts have been preparing for resistance from some parents over the continued school mask mandate. Many, including the Davis and Weber school districts, have sent emails to parents reminding them that masks would continue to be required after the statewide mask mandate was lifted.
“We will still be required to wear masks for the remainder of the school year,” read an email from the Weber School District. “We understand many people, including our students and staff, have grown mask weary, and we look forward to the day when we no longer have to wear masks while at school.”
Some parents who are concerned about the See My Smile campaign impacting school safety have participated in email campaigns thanking school board members and district officials for enforcing the mask mandate. Keep Hybrid for DSD, a Facebook group that has advocated for the Davis School District to increase safety measures during the pandemic, has organized members to push back against See My Smile’s plans.
As of Saturday, there have been 389,760 recorded cases of COVID-19 and 2,159 deaths from the virus in Utah in since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the state health department. The state added 407 new cases Saturday.
Numerous scientific studies have shown the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, according to the CDC.