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It’s up to schools to enforce the mask mandate — and to evaluate the exemptions some families are seeking

Schoolgirl in face mask working in class
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East Side schools are receiving mask mandate exemption requests from some families: 'quite a few' in North Summit, and 7% of the South Summit student population.

The mask mandate in Summit County also applies inside classrooms. The county says it’s up to school districts to enforce the rule — and to evaluate the exemption requests East Side districts are receiving from some families.

East Side schools are reporting far fewer cases of COVID-19 than what’s being reported in the Park City School District. And Summit County spokesperson Derek Siddoway said the county hopes the mask mandate it implemented last week will keep it that way.

Making sure the order is followed, however, is up to the districts — as is evaluating the exemption forms some families are submitting.

“The way the order is structured, it's the responsibility of the schools to enforce the order,” Siddoway said. “And we've worked closely — we have good relationships with all three of our school districts. We trust the education professionals to determine what is a legitimate exemption and what may not be.”

The county’s order allows for an exemption from having to wear a mask for three reasons: a medical condition, a mental health condition or a disability.

Jerre Holmes, the superintendent in North Summit, said the district is allowing principals to accept exemption forms. He said each school has seen “quite a few” exemptions, though he didn’t give specific figures. He said administrators aren’t medical or mental health experts so they have no way of knowing if parents are being honest in seeking an exemption.

In South Summit, Superintendent Greg Maughan said about 7% of students have submitted exemption requests. He said parents are not abusing the system, pointing out that more than 90% of students have not been exempted from having to wear a mask.

“And to be honest, I am going to take a parent at their word — they've signed that document. Just the same as I would take a doctor at their word when they sign that document,” Maughan said.

Those in South Summit seeking an exemption for medical reasons have supplied a doctor’s signature, Maughan said, but those exempted for mental health or disability reasons have not.

There is an exemption form posted on the South Summit district’s website and copies of unauthorized forms have circulated on social media. The South Summit form requires parents to attest their child has a condition that prevents them from wearing a face covering. Siddoway said it is up to school districts to evaluate exemption requests they receive.

“In that scenario, again, we would rely on the school district to determine: ‘Is this a legitimate exemption?’ and to follow up on that, versus ‘Is this a situation where someone may not be in favor of wearing a mask?’” Siddoway said.

North Summit’s Holmes said mask mandates create a political divide that can disrupt the educational process. Students, he said, typically verbalize what their parents think about issues.

Maughan said enforcing the mask mandate adds an additional challenge for district staffers who are already tasked with trying to create a safe learning environment for all students amid a pandemic.

“I'm not getting a lot of pushback or argument or frustration from staff, but I certainly sense that they feel the weight being added to them again,” Maughan said. “And not just teachers, but secretaries, principals, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, food service, custodial. It’s just, it's a lot to add to their plates when really we're, you know, we function as educators.”

The county’s 45-day mask mandate went into effect Friday and is set to lapse on Feb. 21. Officials said it was an attempt to stem the record-breaking surge of local cases of COVID-19.

This is not the first time the county has said it is the schools’ responsibility to enforce mask mandates. A controversy in November about mask-order noncompliance in a Park City elementary school resulted in an investigation by the Summit County Attorney, which is ongoing.

Case numbers on the East Side are lower than in Park City, with North Summit reporting seven cases in its high school and nine others at the middle and elementary levels. The numbers are slightly higher in South Summit, with 11 active cases reported in high school and 20 cases in other schools, according to state data as of Tuesday. The same database showed 144 active cases at Park City High School.