PROVO — Utah Parents United, a group started by Davis County parents, hosted a press conference inside of the Historic Provo Courthouse on Thursday, using the opportunity to speak out about children returning to school without masks and school districts allowing parents to write mask exemption notes.
Around the same time as the press conference, Gov. Spencer Cox spoke during his monthly press conference on PBS and reiterated that there will be no change to the end of the mask mandate in K-12 schools throughout the state.
“We’re going to continue with where we are right now,” Cox said during the press conference. “Again, we’re constantly evaluating and reevaluating things. I’ve spoken to this issue many times, but to those parents and students, I understand that this is so hard. I would like nothing more than to be completely done with masks everywhere.”
His main message was for people to hold on for a couple more weeks until the end of the school year, saying that students will likely return to school in the fall without masks. For Utah Parents United, that message is not one that satisfies the group.
Jennifer Berry, the founder of Franklin Discovery Academy in Vineyard, said the school has allowed parents to make medical decisions about their students wearing masks. According to Berry, the added choice for parents has not impacted the school’s COVID-19 numbers and the school has operated full-time since Aug. 3 without a shutdown due to the disease.
She said that the choice given to parents brought what one parent described as a “miraculously normal school year and a haven of safety during an otherwise chaotic time.”
Berry even cited a significant playground neck injury that was due to a student wearing a mask, adding that masks are not developmentally appropriate for them.
“Nobody is saying that we should be irresponsible and do nothing to mitigate spread, no one is saying that the life of the high risk is not important, we are saying it is past time for the burden of COVID to be removed from our children,” Berry said. “We do not need to prolong the agony on our students any longer. School leaders, you can take a stand and give parents medical freedom. Governor Cox, it is time to take a stand and let our children breathe. I dare you.”
Other topics during the press conference revolved around the statewide mask mandate ending for adults, but not for children in school. Dr. Lyle Mason, an orthopedic surgeon based out of Bountiful and a former team physician for the Utah Jazz, said that the 5-17 age range has proven to be the safest in society when it comes to COVID-19.
According to the statistics he cited, which appear to come from a study the CDC published in August, the hospitalization rate due to COVID-19 for that age range is 8 per 100,000 and the death rate is less than 1 per 100,000.
“(Children) wearing masks, I do not really believe it protects them,” Mason said during the press conference.” I don’t believe they need protection. There’s been a lot of talk about the teachers and staff at schools, that they need protection. With the advent of the vaccines, which are now available, some priority was given to teachers and staff. At this point in time, if they choose to, school teachers and staff have been or could be vaccinated and immune.”
He continued, posing the question of how adults, who Mason said are much more likely to spread the disease, can be out and about without a mask while students are the ones having to wear masks in schools.
The overarching topic from the press conference was that parents should have a choice whether or not their students should wear a mask.
In a recent email to school districts obtained by the Daily Herald, Utah Department of Health Executive Director Rich Saunders clarified the situation to Utah Parents United’s argument.
He said that schools can choose to either require a medical directive documentation for the exemption or choose not to require any documentation. However, if the school decides to require documentation, that documentation can only be provided by certain types of medical providers, according to the order.
“The order does not allow for parents to grant face mask exemptions,” the email said.
The parental exemptions for masks is a decision that was made by the Kane County School District recently, allowing parents to write exemption notes for their students to attend school without a mask.
When asked about school districts having no alternative because of the state mandate, Utah Parents United founder Corinne Johnson said she understood and countered.
“However, we are not asking school boards to end the mandate, we are asking them to change their policy and allow parents to declare the medical exemptions for their children as demonstrated by Kane County, charter schools and private schools across the state of Utah,” Johnson said. “They have the power to do this, it is within their legal capabilities, and we ask every school district to allow parents to write exemptions for their children.”
While Kane County may be a small sample size in comparison to Utah or Davis counties, Johnson stressed that the data from school districts is consistent no matter the location. She argued that this showed how parent exemption notices would not make an impact on COVID-19 numbers, adding that the Davis School District has given out about 400 medical exemptions from a doctor and the COVID-19 numbers are comparable.
In response to the press conference and ongoing protest against the school districts, many have cited that it is not their decision to make. David Stephenson, administrator of public relations for the Alpine School District said that while there may be differing opinions on the mandate, the district has no legal authority to alter the mandate before June 15.
Stephenson has also talked about finishing the school year strong and on a high note.
“The strongest way a school district can finish the school year is to allow parents the right to make medical and health decisions for their children,” Johnson said. “We have to protect parent rights all of the time. This is important because these kids sacrificed for nine months, 10 months so that teachers could be vaccinated, so that we could understand how it’s spread through schools, and we have the information that our schools are safe.”
According to Stephenson, the Alpine School District has had minimal issues after returning from spring break.
“Our students, parents and communities have been extremely supportive as we look forward to celebrating students and conclude the school year with memorable activities over the next six weeks,” Stephenson said.
As for the support behind the See My Smile campaign, Johnson said that thousands of parents have been emailing, writing and calling local school boards around the state asking to allow the parental exemption notes for masks.
Nearly 10,000 parents from across the state are in Utah Parents United, she said, sharing a screenshot of the number of people who have signed up for the organization's emailing list.
As for the thought moving forward, Cox doubled down in his press conference on Thursday and said that the children are a lot better than the parents. He said the students are showing they can do hard things and are willing to do those things to get through this.