County attorney finds no wrongdoing in Parley’s Park mask mandate investigation

PARK CITY, Utah — Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson and Deputy Summit County Attorney Helen Strachan earlier this week released their report about the implementation of the mask mandate at Parley’s Park Elementary School (PPES) in November.

On Friday, October 29, Summit County Health Director Dr. Phil Bondurant determined that PPES had reached the threshold number of positive COVID-19 cases set forth in the health order that was put in place at the beginning of the school year (it has since been lifted). The order called for a two-week mask mandate at any school that reached a 2% case threshold among students, faculty, and staff.

Under the policy, the mask mandate was scheduled to be in effect at the school the following Monday, Nov. 1. However, PPES students and faculty were observed not wearing masks the following week, and the health order was not enforced until the following Monday, Nov. 8. Parent outcry regarding the implementation of the order came shortly thereafter.

The Summit County Attorney’s Office employed a neutral, outside investigator to look into the incident to determine if there was any malpractice.

“As COVID-19 cases were occurring in schools during the fall school year, some of the schools put a “dashboard” on their websites to notify parents of current conditions in the schools. This dashboard may have included reported Health Department data, but it also included individual, unconfirmed reports of positive COVID-19 tests,” the report states.

“While the dashboard was a helpful indicator tool (like a canary in a coal mine), the dashboard was not a definitive, reliable, or authoritative source of COVID-19 levels in schools. However, instead of being a helpful tool, the dashboard seems to have caused great confusion with school staff and parents.”

The report then goes on to document the communication confusion between Park City School District (PCSD) staff, the Park City Education Association (PCEA), and parents.

On the night of Oct. 31, the day before the order was to go into place, PPES Principal Kim Howe wrote to faculty that “students are encouraged to follow the students’ parents’ guidance with regard to wearing face masks” and that “face coverings or face shields will be required for all students, faculty, and staff.”

“In retrospect, it appears this may have been an addition on to an old email, a mistake that created confusion from the start,” the report says.

The next morning, the co-president of PCEA sent an email to PCSD Superintendent Dr. Jill Gildea stating that “the teachers were told [at PPES] that per current legislation they cannot force kids to wear a mask . . . and tell them to remember to do what their parents/caregivers have told them to do. This goes directly against what the mandate says.”

A debate between Dr. Gildea and PCEA followed, with the union arguing for a more restrictive interpretation.

Later on Monday, Dr. Gildea took the position that the school would not send students home for noncompliance, however, staff had the right to strongly encourage the mask mandate.

Principal Howe told Gildea that Monday that compliance was substantial that day. However, later that day, Dr. Gildea received legal advice stating the district had “very little ability” to enforce the mask mandates, as it related to students and visitors. She sent those remarks to PCEA and Dr. Bondurant

Later that week, Dr. Bondurant wrote to Dr. Gildea, saying “I disagree with the position of your legal counsel.” Adding that “the schools are required to comply with the order.”

On Thursday, Dr. Gildea started to receive messages from concerned parents about the announcement that morning describing the mandate as “parent choice.”

The report says: “It is at this point that Dr.Gildea appears to begin to equate “parental choice” with “medical exemptions.” This confusion would characterize the next few days.”

In a meeting with county attorneys and Dr. Bondurant, Dr. Gildea suggested that the morning message at PPES was an anti-bullying message, implying that the school was attempting to remind students to be tolerant of those who could not wear masks.

In an email to parents the following weekend, Dr. Gildea wrote: “I used the term Parental Choice instead of “those with allowable medical exemptions” with Principal Howe, and that was my error. However, that does not disregard the rule of the mandate.”

Later that weekend, the county attorney threatened to shut down PPES if the health order was not enforced the following week, saying that “students with no exemption must be masked.”

An inspection that Monday found that compliance was “satisfactory.” Other inspections throughout the remainder of the mandate also found compliance to be adequate.

Messaging was updated the following Thursday by Dr. Gildea:  “Families have 3 options while a mandate is in place at the school site: may comply and adhere to the mandate, may educate at home with remote support, may provide a valid medical exemption.

“That being said, the “educate at home with remote support” option is not punitive. It is in protection of public health and in alignment of enforcement of the Public Health Order which was the intent of my statement.”

The report’s conclusion states the following:

  • “All evidence points to Principal Howe’s sincere desire to enforce the mandate and protect the health of students, faculty, and staff at PPES.”
  • “Evidence points to Dr. Gildea’s sincere desire to enforce the mandate and protect the health of students, faculty, and staff at PPES.”
  • “The concern in the community that PCSD/PPES was intentionally manipulating the situation so as not to have to enforce the mask mandate is unfounded.”

Read the full report and timeline



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