Utah teachers, students who defy mask mandate could be charged with misdemeanor

Students and teachers in Utah could face a misdemeanor if they defy the mask mandate, which was introduced in July, according to a news release from the office of Gov. Gary R. Herbert.

The penalty was confirmed by Herbert’s office on Aug. 19 by The Salt Lake Tribune. Anna Lehnardt, a spokesperson from the governor’s office, stated it would be up to the leaders of schools and charters to decide whether or not they want to seek charges as they respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s enforced on a district and superintendent level,” she added. “But we’re not thinking, ‘Let’s slap a bunch of kids with misdemeanors.‘”

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While Lehnardt said she does not believe any school officials will actually pursue charges against students or staff who do not follow the mask mandate, she did outline what would potentially happen if anyone decided to go against the mandate.

“If a criminal prosecution is sought, though, a school employee or a student — including those in kindergarten — could face a class B misdemeanor. That is the standard for any violation of a public health order,” Lehnardt told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And it can be punished with a sentence of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. That is the same level of charge, for example, as a first offense for driving drunk.”

Still, some parents see charging students as a way to protect others is a step too far.

The mother of a high schooler in Cache County, located north of Salt Lake City, questioned why her child should be punished for what she deemed was a personal choice, according to the Tribune.

“Our children should not have to suffer criminal consequences for getting an education,” said Angie Martin during a legislative meeting Wednesday.

Another mother in Utah said that parents of students should be charged with the misdemeanor, not young kids.

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Due to concerns from teachers over the lack of PPE, Herbert added that the state's unified command team has decided to provide five KN95 masks and two face shields to every teacher and staff member in the state, "as a supplement to existing supply."

"The nature of a pandemic is fluid and requires constant adaptation," he wrote on Twitter. "We are still very much in an emergency situation, and I will continue to work as governor to protect lives and livelihoods."

As of Monday, Utah had reported more than 49,364 confirmed coronavirus cases and at least 390 deaths from the virus, according to data from the Utah Department of Health dashboard.

Millions of children in the U.S. are heading back to school. The World Health Organization announced that children aged 6 to 11 should wear masks in some cases to help fight the spread of coronavirus. Children in general face less severe virus symptoms than do adults, with the elderly the most vulnerable to severe infection and death.

The WHO said decisions about whether children aged 6 to 11 should wear masks should consider factors like whether COVID-19 transmission is widespread in the area where the child lives; the child's ability to safely use a mask; and adult supervision when taking the masks on or off.

“Luckily, the vast majority of children who are infected with the virus appear to have mild disease or asymptomatic infection, and that’s good news,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, technical chief of the U.N. health agency's emergencies program.

Since then, researchers have found that the virus can be transmitted through aerosols — tiny droplets emitted when people talk, laugh, sing or sneeze — and mask-wearing can cut down on the amount of virus that people are exposed to.

Some policymakers, including public transport authorities in Europe and elsewhere, have set the bar for mask-wearing in crowded places like buses and trains at age 12 — with everyone older required to put them on.

Acknowledging gaps in both research and understanding of the virus, WHO said kids under age 6 should not wear masks, while those 12 to 18 should wear them just like adults should — notably in cases where physical distancing cannot be ensured and in areas of high transmission.

“Everyone agrees how important it is that schools are operating safely,” Van Kerkhove said. "We’ve outlined how that can be done in terms of physical distancing and hand hygiene stations, respiratory etiquette, the potential use of masks by either the workers or the children themselves.”

WHO said the current evidence suggests virus cases reported from kids stemmed mostly from transmission within households and that “documented transmission among children and staff within educational settings is limited.”

The Associated Press and FOX News contributed to this report.