The Utah Legislature approved a bill on Wednesday that would prevent schools from requiring face masks in the upcoming school year.
The story: The House of Representatives in the state passed the bill in a 50-24 vote and the Senate later approved it with 23 state Senators voting in favor of ditching the mask mandate in schools. Only 5 lawmakers in the Senate voted against it.
The legislation now heads to Gov. Spencer Cox’s (R) desk. He has not said whether he supports it.
The bill, House Bill 1007, would strip school districts of the power to enforce their own mask mandate once the next school year begins. It says that they cannot force students to wear a face covering, which it defines as a “mask, shield, or other device that is intended to be worn in a manner to cover the mouth, nose, or face to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
School boards, institutions of higher education, and local education agencies “may not require an individual to wear a face covering as a condition of attendance for in-person instruction, institution-sponsored athletics, institution-sponsored extracurricular activities in dormitories, or in any other place on a campus,” the bill says.
Under the legislation, students can choose to wear a mask at school.
The legislation separately prohibits school districts from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine, both for attending or enrolling in their programs, without allowing for medical exemptions, the Associated Press reported.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Val Peterson (R) claimed it’s “about returning our schools to normalcy” and “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.”
He pointed out that “there have been mental health issues, there’s been other issues that those masks have created” and argued the bill seeks to address “the mental health of our students,” among other things.
Opponents: Several lawmakers raised concerns that the Legislature might be overstepping its authority.
“Looking back, many in this body have lost family members, but I’m standing to oppose this bill for the simple reason of process and local control. I’m not standing because I had COVID or I was in the hospital for a week and (am) still on oxygen. I’m not standing because I like face masks or I don’t,” said Rep. Melissa Ballard (R), according to the Daily Herald.
Rep. Phil Lyman called on other lawmakers to “preserve individual choice and accountability, which I believe is the primary object of the Legislature.”
“My fear is … not that school districts won’t be able to impose a mask mandate, it’s that school districts 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,'” Rep. Kera Birkeland (R) said.
“I think what this does is sets the Legislature up as a super school board,” said Rep. Carol Spackman (R).
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