Weber County officials mull school mask rules — in certain circumstances
OGDEN — No emergency order or mask mandate for students is imminent in Weber County.
Current COVID-19 case figures, though, indicate schools in Weber County will start reaching the 2% case threshold by mid-October, maybe earlier, which would trigger a state provision requiring that impacted schools offer testing for the virus to students. The current COVID-19 case count among those aged 5-12 in Weber County is 189, seven times the 27 cases in all during September 2020, according to Weber-Morgan Health Department Director Brian Cowan.
And in light of the possibility of reaching the 2% mark, Cowan on Monday proposed an approach requiring mask use in elementary schools when at least 2% of students test positive for the virus. Unlike today, a mask mandate was in effect in schools last year.
“I really want to keep this order focused on where it will have the largest benefit, which is the elementary-age schools,” Cowan told Weber County commissioners during a meeting on the topic. Kids 12 and older — those in junior high schools and high schools — have the option of vaccinating, so his proposed mask mandate, aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 among younger kids without the vaccination option, would apply strictly to K-6 schools.
Cowan’s proposal is similar to the approach taken by leaders in Summit County.
Commissioners, discussing the issue as a followup to a Weber-Morgan Health Board discussion on the red-hot issue last week, took no action. Indeed, Cowan said his proposal would be to hold off on any formal action, such as a declaration of a public health emergency triggering the mask mandate, until schools closely approach or reach that 2% mark.
“It’s a plan. We want to be ready to go. We recognize that it’s more reactive than it is proactive and there’s a lot of people in the community who would like us to take a more proactive approach,” he said.
As a followup, commissioners plan to address COVID-19 case levels with Cowan or a health department rep each week to keep track on the evolution of the virus here.
The 2% threshold, per Senate Bill 107, applies to schools with 1,500 or more students. The threshold for smaller schools is 30 students and Commissioner Gage Froerer said he’d like health officials to take a closer look at how any rule would apply to such facilities.
“I think this needs more analysis,” said Froerer, calling for a “data-driven decision.”
Officials across Utah and the nation have been debating what sort of mask rules, if any, to apply in schools, generating a strong response from the public. A contingent opposed to mask mandates attended Monday’s meeting, displaying signs reading “End medical fascism!” and more. None spoke during the gathering — it wasn’t a public hearing — but one, Caroline Lietuvininkas, said afterward that mask mandates are only part of their concern.
The debate over mask mandates “has all been a ruse to get people to take the jab. The jab is the problem,” she said. Any sort of mask mandate, she worries, would be a precursor to requiring vaccination against the COVID-19 virus.
Underscoring the skepticism of some toward the COVID-19 vaccine, June Reese, also in the audience Monday, said she doesn’t want to get injected with “a mystery serum.” Others have voiced concern about mask mandates as a trampling of their personal liberties and said masks can hinder the learning process.
Cowan and Froerer countered the skepticism toward vaccinating. “Obviously, the overall answer to this is an easy one – get vaccinated,” Froerer said. Cowan said getting vaccinated is “the most effective preventative measure” against the COVID-19 virus.
The debate here comes in the wake of the start of classes in public schools across Weber County. Ogden School District schools started on Aug. 20 and Weber School District classes started on Aug. 25. There are more cases now than a year ago, which prompted a measure of concern from Cowan.
“There’s quite a bit more transmission today than we saw a year ago,” he said.
In fact, he said he expects schools in Weber County to reach the 2% threshold spelled out in state law by early to mid-October. “We feel we’ll have some schools approach it faster than that,” he said.
He noted that Weber County’s two hospitals, McKay-Dee Hospital and Ogden Regional Medical Center, have exceeded their capacity for patients in their intensive-care units, or ICUs, with 35 between them, five more than the collective 30-bed capacity. “What we’re hearing from our hospitals is that this rate of ICU utilization is not sustainable. Statewide, we’re also seeing that issue,” Cowan said.
What’s more, the case count across all ages in Weber and Morgan counties, not just kids, is much higher now than it was a year ago — 1,995 active cases now versus 518 a year ago.
Superintendents from the three public school districts in Weber and Morgan counties are mostly interested in getting direction from leaders. “Really what I hear from all three superintendents is they just want a direction to go and to be able to follow that,” Cowan said.