Utah Students and Staff Who Reject Masks Can Receive Misdemeanor Charge

The office of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) confirmed late Wednesday that students and employees of the state’s K-12 schools who refuse to wear masks in the buildings may be faced with a misdemeanor charge.
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The office of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) confirmed late Wednesday students and employees of the state’s K-12 schools who refuse to wear masks in the buildings may be faced with a misdemeanor charge.

“It’s enforced on a district and superintendent level,” said spokesperson Anna Lehnardt, reported the Salt Lake Tribune. “But we’re not thinking, ‘Let’s slap a bunch of kids with misdemeanors.’”

Herbert issued a mask mandate for public schools in July. If schools choose not to bring charges against students or staff who refuse to wear them, administrators can place the offenders on remote learning status instead.

Lehnardt said the purpose of the directive is to keep teachers safe.

The Tribune further reported:

If a criminal prosecution is sought, though, a school employee or a student — including those in kindergarten — could face a class B misdemeanor. That is the standard for any violation of a public health order, Lehnardt added. And it can be punished with a sentence of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. That is the same level of charge, for example, as a first offense for driving drunk.

On Thursday, Herbert issued a new emergency declaration for the coronavirus pandemic, after the Utah legislature refused to extend emergency restrictions.

“We’re not out of the woods yet on this pandemic,” Herbert said at a news conference. “People are still dying. The infection rates are still too high and growing.”

He added the continued emergency status was needed, in part, to ensure Utah could receive federal emergency relief funds, if necessary.

On Thursday, the Tribune reported the state’s rate of new COVID-19 diagnoses rose slightly with 461 new cases. However, the average rate has remained, for more than a week, under the governor’s standard of fewer than 400 cases per day.

Nevertheless, four schools have experienced new outbreaks since reopening within the past two weeks.

Many lawmakers suggested the restrictions are too severe for young people.

During the legislature’s education committee meeting, State Rep. Mark Strong (R) said he is “highly concerned that we are maybe … making a big deal out of something that’s not quite so big a deal for our young population,” Deseret News reported.

“Of course, we need to protect our teachers, especially those that are compromised,” Strong continued, adding, “So, how do we address that? And are we being too restrictive, especially with this young population that has very, very, very low risk?”

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said it is “premature for us to say that kids don’t suffer from any effects from COVID-19 because they don’t die.”

“I think there is certainly a possibility that there are other effects we just don’t know about yet,” she added.

Dunn explained to keep schools safe for students and teachers requires social distance practices and a statewide mask mandate.

“Face masks, we know, prevent the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “This really is one of our best tools we have right now, before we get a vaccine or good treatment for COVID-19, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools.”

According to a report by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, many Utah public schools have already reopened with “very few bumps in the road.”

“Everybody is reporting happy children and happy teachers and everybody just grateful to be back together in whatever form that looks like,” Dickson said.

However, Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, said she is concerned about the rights of teachers who are managing both in-person and remote teaching in some situations.

“What do we do and who do we turn to to get our issues solved when the mitigation strategies that our district has put forth are not being implemented in the safest of ways?” she asked.

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