UPDATED: Washington County schools no longer require masks on campus

Stock photo | Photo by Mahsun YILDIZ/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Washington County School District is no longer requiring students and staff to wear face coverings inside school campuses.

Washington County School District office in St. George, Utah, on July 25, 2019 | Photo by Ryann Richardson, St. George News

Updated 5 p.m., May 7: Reaction from Utah Department of Health.

The district’s board of education sent out an e-mail to faculty and staff Friday morning that stated: “It is our recommendation that masks should continue to be worn throughout WCSD schools, and we encourage all students to wear them.”

When asked by St. George News, Steve Dunham, spokesperson for the Washington County School District, said the use of the word “recommendation” means that the district will no longer enforce the wearing of masks on school grounds.

“No we will not,” Dunham said, adding that the school board has been discussing since Tuesday the possibility of lifting the mandate on the district level. “We will encourage students to wear masks but we will not mandate them.”

St. George News was able to confirm that on at least three campuses within the district, the news was met with students, teachers and staff taking off their masks.

The move runs contrary to a state order that was reissued Tuesday that said that despite all the criteria being met in the legislative “endgame” bill that ended all state COVID-19 restrictions on Tuesday, the mandatory mask order still applied in schools through June 15 or the last day of the school year, whichever comes first.

The last day for Washington County schools is May 26.

In their statement to their staff that was also issued to the media, the district’s board cites the endgame bill and its lifting of state enforcement of all but the K-12 schools COVID-19 orders as a reason for the move.

Undated photo of group of children with face masks back at school after COVID-19 quarantine and lockdown. | Photo by
Halfpoint, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

“In light of the recent lifting of the public health order across the State of Utah, we celebrate the gains we have achieved collectively,” the statement from the Washington County District reads. “We are also appreciative of the employees, parents and students who have supported us throughout this year.”

The bill itself says: “A public health order issued by the Department of Health issued pursuant to a public health emergency declared by the Department of Health pertaining to response to COVID-19 and the COVID-19 emergency that pertains to public health safety measures in a K-12 school may remain in place.”

As to whether the Washington County district’s move is in violation of the state order, Dunham said, “I can’t speak to that.” 

Jenny Johnson, a spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Health, responded to an inquiry from St. George News by reiterating that the school mask mandate is still in effect for all K-12 schools in the state.

“Masks are required in K-12 schools until the end of the 2020-21 school year or June 15th, whichever comes first, per state public health order and allowable under House Bill 294,” Johnson said.

Gov. Spencer Cox, in his weekly COVID-19 press conference Thursday, reaffirmed that the school mask mandate is meant to remain in place through the end of the school year. 

“We just have a few weeks left. Let’s finish it strong and wear a mask,” Cox said, though he acknowledged how the issue of masks in schools has become divisive.

“We’ve had this discussion. Just show some empathy and kindness for those who have a different view than you. Please show some humanity,” he said.

School districts in Iron and Kane counties have also made moves to enforce the mask mandate less, allowing for parent’s notes as opposed to doctor’s notes to excuse a student from having to wear masks. 

Attendees at the “End the Mask Mandate Rally” hold up signs in front of the Washington County School District offices, St. George, Utah, Aug. 21, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

State health officials said the moves in Iron and Kane counties were in violation of the state order, but the state health department would not enforce that violation

However, the move by Washington County’s school district goes beyond the actions of the other districts by eliminating the mandate entirely. 

Throughout the school year, there have been protests outside the Washington County School District’s headquarters by those against the school mask mandate, which received national attention.

After the state’s mask mandate ended on April 11, the state still said that the mask order remained in schools.

But Dunham said whichever side someone fell concerning masks in schools, it’s not the time to do battle. 

“We’re encouraging everyone to wear masks,” Dunham said. “Let’s be civil about this.”

Reaction from teachers, anti-mandate group

Harmony Vanderhorst said she started the anti-mask mandate group Utah Parents United after her children were suspended from a Washington County school for not wearing their masks. That group has helped spearhead the protests in Washington County and has also pushed for people to speak out at school board meetings statewide.

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

Vanderhorst was with her kids at a baseball tournament in Cedar City when she heard the news from the Washington County School Board.

“I was pretty shocked to be honest. I’ve been pushing it a lot. My kids were some of the first to be suspended,” Vanderhorst told St. George News. “They had seemed like they (the board) dug their heels in, but they took what we said to heart. I feel they really care about the kids. It shows we have a good school board down here.”

Vanderhorst said she was planning to keep her kids out of school for the remainder of the school year before the announcement.

“Monday I was like, ‘Screw it. We’ll be out the rest of the year,’ and just pulled my kids,” Vanderhorst said. “I called the school and said we’re going back on Monday. This is what we have been fighting for.”

Amy Barton, president of the Washington County Education Association that represents teachers in the district, said the mask mandate should have remained, noting there are less than two weeks left of school.

“Mask wearing  is one of the tools that has been used to keep our schools open for in-person learning. Although the state has met the criteria established by HB294, the recommendation that masks continue to be worn in WCSD schools is a solid one,” Barton said. “We have 13 days left in our school year, we’ve had a tremendously successful year in many regards, so adhering to the recommendation to continue to use masks makes sense. We’ve been successful for 166 days and can maintain that for 13 more days.”

Washington County School District was one of the first in the nation to return to in-person learning last August when most schools nationwide hadn’t returned to in-person learning until the last few weeks. 

But as to why the district should take action now, rather than just finish out the last two weeks of the school year, Vanderhorst said a statement needed to be made not only about the current pandemic, but pandemics in the future. 

“If we wait until the beginning of the year … if another virus comes out, no one wants to stand up at the beginning of a school year or it seems like they don’t support keeping kids in school,” Vanderhorst said. “We are at the end so I feel like it needed to be addressed now while people are in school and paying attention.”

Third grade teacher Elena Briz helps her students as they complete classwork electronically, St. George, Utah, April 29, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

Vanderhorst added that her group’s goal isn’t to keep students and staff from wearing masks at all, but to allow them to choose whether to do so. 

“We just want a choice for our child whether it is to wear a mask or not. I am for choice,” Vanderhorst said, adding that she feels the same way about vaccines, that it should be left to people’s choice, rather than them being mandated. “There is too much scientific data each way to decide what’s good for everyone.”

A large majority of health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and that, outside of vaccines, masks are the best way to prevent transmission. 

On Thursday, outgoing state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said that at this point, schoolchildren – with those under 16 not approved to receive the vaccine – are the largest transmitters of the virus in the state. 

One concern that might come of the school district’s move is bullying or harassment toward teachers and students that choose to continue to wear masks. Traveling to several campuses, St. George News heard from multiple teachers and students who didn’t want to be identified but said they were harassed by fellow students, teachers and administrators for choosing to keep their mask on after word of the e-mail circulated in schools.

“Our district has policies regarding bullying and harassment for both students and employees, and I am confident that WCSD administration will appropriately address any issues that arise,” Barton said. “The Associations representing both certified teachers and classified personnel will also be here to advocate for and support our members who are the target of negative behavior from others.”

Vanderhorst said Utah Parents United sent messages to students after it caught wind of the announcement. “We sent messages to kids and the kids all erupted in cheers and were so excited,” she said. 

However, she added that she will push to make sure those who choose to still wear masks won’t be harassed.

“We don’t want this causing bullying issues the other way now,” she said. “We want kids to have a choice. That’s what I’m pushing for.”

Update 5:45 p.m., Reactions from teachers and the anti-mask group was added.

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

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