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County Attorney explains Parley’s Park investigation; schools superintendent defends parent choice

Parley's Park Elementary School last week

Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson recommended the Park City School Board hold a public meeting to discuss why the county mask mandate was not implemented at Parley’s Park Elementary School last week.

Olson said Parley’s Park made a serious error by not enforcing a mask mandate last week. That led to health officers being at the school Monday to enforce it.

“The first thing we needed to do was secure enforcement in the present moment," she said. "Step two is determining what went wrong last week because I think it's apparent that things went terribly wrong.”

Now that masks are being worn at Parley’s Park, Olson said she’s turning her attention to what occurred last week, when the mask mandate was supposed to take effect. Her preliminary work points to the district acting on incorrect advice from its lawyer and not to any personal anti-mask agenda.

“That mask mandate was legally enforceable and should have been enforced by the district," Olson said. "Now that we've secured compliance, we can go back and determine the actual facts, plug them into a timeline and figure out what went wrong. This is important for two reasons, first of all, so that the same mistakes aren't made in the future and the second reason is accountability to the public at large and to parents at Parley’s Park Elementary in particular.”

In terms of accountability, Olson said criminal liability could take the form of fines and prosecution for a misdemeanor.

“I have suggested to the board that they hold a special public meeting specifically for the purposes of unpacking this," she said. "I think that would be a healthy thing for the public and for the district going forward when times like this parents are stressed parents of immunocompromised children are in a particularly terrible position. And transparency is key.”

The conflict began Nov. 1, when 2 % of the school population, or 13 people, had active COVID cases. This triggered a mask mandate under county law. But instead of making people wear masks, administrators told students they could do whatever their parents wanted.

On Nov. 8, Superintendent Jill Gildea published a statement on the district web site saying she should not have told students that, and said the school would have, quote, “a reset.”

But later that same day, in an email to KPCW, Gildea wrote that telling children to listen to their parents complied with direction from the Utah legislature.

Gildea’s email says in part, “Parental choice…is in compliance with legislative language. Directing students to listen to instruction from their teacher and parents is NOT counter to the mandate.”

Summit County Attorney Olson disagreed.

“KPCW published a recording of the principal's message last week that seemed to indicate parental option," she said. "That certainly was not what the mask mandate said. And I think that we need to dig into why that message was given.”

In a special session last May the Utah legislature passed a bill prohibiting school districts from mandating masks. However, Summit County later passed a health order establishing a threshold for temporary mask mandates in schools.

Gildea’s email did not answer questions about why some faculty and staff were unmasked at Parley’s Park last week.

KPCW has asked the school board for comment on the situation at Parley’s Park and has not received a response. No public meeting has been announced.