Rep. Owens, others pen letter over investigation into Utah, states ‘that respect parents’ choices on in-school masking’

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FILE – In this May 18, 2021 file photo, fifth graders wearing face masks are seated at proper social distancing during a music class at the Milton Elementary School in Rye, N.Y. As the nation closes out a school year marred by the pandemic, some states are now starting to release new standardized test scores that offer an early glimpse at just how far students have fallen behind — with some states reporting that the turbulent year has reversed years of progress across every academic subject. New York, Georgia and some other states pushed to cancel testing for a second year so schools could focus on classroom learning. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – A Utah congressman is calling on the U.S. Department of Education to explain their decision to launch civil rights investigations into five states, Utah included, and their laws on masking in schools. The Department’s Office for Civil Rights is looking to determine if the laws violate the rights of students with disabilities.

Education and Labor Committee Republican Leader Virginia Foxx (R-NC) sent a letter to Education Department Secretary Miguel Cardona on Wednesday, asking for more information about the decision to investigate “five states that respect parents’ choices on in-school masking.” Representative Burgess Owens (R-Utah) is among those signing the letter alongside Foxx.

“Using threats to infringe on states’ authorities to protect students and ensure access to education is a gross overreach of federal power,” members write in the letter. “We are writing to gain a better understanding of the Department’s position on this topic.”

The letter continues, saying members “are concerned about the selective application of your so-called commitment to science and well-being of students, as well as your commitment to administering the laws faithfully under your jurisdiction.” You can read the full copy of the letter here.

Current Utah law says local health departments can issue mask mandates for schools in conjunction with elected county officials. The mandate could stand for 30 days before the county council or commission would need to approve that moving forward. In early August, after Salt Lake County Health Department executive director Dr. Angela Dunn proposed requiring masks for school children under the age of 12, county officials overturned it on a 6-3 vote. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall recently issued an emergency order requiring K-12 students, faculty, and visitors to wear masks while in schools.

Utah’s top education official, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson, reacted to the Department of Education’s investigation earlier this week, saying it “unfairly” defines the state’s law.

“While we appreciate OCR’s efforts to protect children, specifically students with disabilities, we think they have unfairly defined Utah as a state where mask mandates cannot occur. State law places these decisions at the local level with local health departments and locally elected officials. We have witnessed the process occurring in several counties and currently Salt Lake City and Grand County School districts have indoor mask mandates in place,” says State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson. “Our schools continue to utilize the many health and safety protocols developed and implemented last year to keep our students learning in person.”

Dickson also references a March 2021 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying it “heralded Utah’s efforts in keeping students safe amid COVID-19 concerns.” The report says “mask adherence was high” when the study was conducted in Salt Lake County elementary schools from Dec. 3, 2020, to Jan. 31, 2021. The CDC says the findings of the report show “elementary schools can be opened safely with minimal in-school transmission when critical prevention strategies including mask use are implemented.” Additionally, the CDC report found two of the five school-associated COVID-19 transmission events occurred because of poor mask use.

In addition to Utah, the Department of Education is investigating Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

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