Parents of immunocompromised children filed a lawsuit on Monday to protest newly passed Utah laws — HB 1007 and SB 195 — that prohibit school districts from enforcing mask mandates without authorization from health authorities and limits the power schools have over these mandates.
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The parents say this law leaves their children “unnecessarily unprotected and at-risk” from COVID-19 in the classroom and therefore blocks certain students from getting a safe education.
The Sutherland Institute said:
“The parents argue that recently approved state laws that prohibit the adoption of mask mandates infringe the children’s right to an education. In other words, they say the children have a constitutional right that would have the effect of requiring at least some schools to enact a mask mandate.”
The case — filed by nine concerned parents — was filed against Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, and Salt Lake County. The defendants have not commented about the lawsuit to media outlets.
This lawsuit comes soon after the mayor of Salt Lake City, Erin Mendenhall, issued a mask mandate for all K-12 students in the city. The Salt Lake City School District declined to take an official stance on the mandate. Mendenhall said in an interview that she’d lift the order once COVID-19 cases go down in the city.
Dr. Leisha Nolen, state epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health (UDOH), told State of Reform masks in schools are effective, and she remains concerned for the future of COVID spread in schools.
“We know last year with the schools having masks in place was a really successful strategy. We were able to keep kids pretty safe last year with masks. By taking that off the table, we are concerned.”
Nolen said only one school district in Utah — Grand County School District — was able to get a mask mandate approved by their local health department. Many other school districts in the state are not recommending masks be worn at all.
“We expect that we will have very different situations in those different schools based on what their policy is and how families respond to that.”
Nolen said a lack of masks in school could exacerbate an already present capacity issue in hospitals statewide — including in pediatric hospitals. As of Aug. 27, 86.6% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds in the state are occupied. At Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, 66% of ICU beds are occupied.
Nolen also noted her concerns on the staffing problems in hospitals.
“We know that a big issue right now is staffing. A lot of these hospitals feel ethically required to take care of these patients, and the only way they can do that is to have nurses cover more patients than usual … We need to make sure people are aware that our system might break down. We’re all used to — as Americans — that if you get sick, you go to the hospital and you’re going to get care. We would never question that, but it appears that we might have to start questioning that. That’s terrifying.”
Nolen continues to watch the rise in cases in schools of other states without mandated mask usage like Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia. She is concerned that Utah might be following that path.