Utah Legislators Discuss School Masks In Special Session

May 19, 2021

Mask mandates in schools was one of the 22 topics approved for the special session of the Utah State Legislature on Wednesday. 

“This bill is about returning our schools to normalcy. Its about giving some assurances to parents and to students alike, that when they come back this fall, that they'll return back to a normal situation," said Rep. Val Peterson, the Republican who introduced the bill that would prevent school districts and higher education entitles from implementing mask mandates.

The bill passed the House, 50-24 and will be considered by the Senate next.

The bill saw mixed response from lawmakers. Republican Rep. Melissa Ballard, whose father died from COVID-19, opposed the bill.

“I personally feel it's very hypocritical for this body to complain about the governor having a face mask mandate last year and now we are turning around and requiring a state mandate to not allow the masks without a huge process," Ballard said.

Rep. Norman Thurston, also a Republican, voted in favor because he said it clears up ambiguity around mask mandates. 

“This bill clarifies that a mandate will not be imposed by a university president or the local school board," he said. "It will be imposed by the county government in consultation with local health director.”

Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland shared Ballard’s concern relates to local control. 

“It's not that school districts won't be able to impose a mask mandate," Birkeland said. "It’s that the school district will feel like the Utah legislature has said, ‘You don't get to weigh in on this issue. You're not qualified to speak to the needs of the kids in your schools that you've been elected to serve.’” 

In contrast, Rep. Jordan Teuscher, another Republican, said he supports the bill because it’s an issue of if school districts should be able to implement mask mandates, not whether they are qualified to make the decision. 

“The powers and duties of local school boards, nowhere does it say that a local school board should be making or in forcing any sort of health orders," Teuscher said. "That's a different role of government. So this is simply a separation of powers issue.”

Update: After this story was written and aired, the Utah State Senate passed the bill 23 to 5.