Utah County Commission’s no-mask decision for schools sparks public debate

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By Andrew Nieves

More than 80 residents spent nearly two hours voicing support or opposition to K-12 school mask mandates during a Utah County Commission meeting Wednesday afternoon.

(Left to right) Commissioner Amelia Powers Gardner, Commissioner Bill Lee (Chairman) and Commissioner Thomas Sakievich listen to public comments about mask mandates in schools for an hour and 40 minutes on Wednesday. Commissioners had earlier said they would not support mask mandates for Utah County public schools. (Andrew Nieves via Zoom)

Commissioners told the audience they were only taking public comments and would not vote on the issue. Much of the meeting — held in person and streamed via Zoom — was spent debating the commissioner’s position, announced last month, to not mandate masks in schools. Most Utah County K-12 students return to classrooms next week.

Sydney Armstrong, a teacher from Provo, shared her experience teaching students while wearing masks. “It’s terrible. I watched all the grades drop. Masks do not help education,” she said.

Trisha Bunderson, an emergency room nurse from Lehi, supports the mask mandate, saying that the higher positivity of delta variant exposure is “changing the game.”

“Our hospitals are full. We are low staffed. We are feeling the strain. We ask you to please act with the changing nature of the virus. Disease is costly in so many ways in our community,” Bunderson said.

Before taking public comments, Commission Chairman Bill Lee read a letter sent to Utah County parents about the no-mask decision. The letter was a result of a meeting held with the county commissioners, public school superintendents and director of the county health department. 

This letter says that masks are a personal choice and it is the responsibility of parents to enforce them, local decisions are made by schools, and social distancing and masks are recommendations but not mandatory to participate in school activities.

Commissioner Thomas Sakievich said the sheriff and county attorney were not going to impose any kind of mandate. 

“We did work extremely difficult hours, seven days a week at times to make sure that vaccinations were available for those who wanted them,” Sakievich said. “What we want is the individual adult and parents’ discretion on what they do with masks and vaccines.”

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