LEHI, Utah — Students at Utah public schools were still required to wear masks through the end of the school year, but one private school in Lehi has not required students and staff to wear masks since August, and school officials said they have not had a single case of COVID.
Alpine Valley Academy is a small private, non-profit school with 35 students and six staff members.
Mark Cluff, a former member of the Utah State Board of Education, founded the school three years ago, following a different learning model that allows the students to guide their own education.
“In other words, the student decides each day how they spend their time, what they study and what they do,” Cluff said.
The coronavirus pandemic has shown that model extends beyond the books into face coverings.
In March 2020, Alpine Valley shut its doors like most other schools in the state, but Cluff said as they learned more about the virus and how it spreads, they decided to stray from the statewide approach to combating the virus in schools.
“There’s a pandemic and people need to be cautious and aware and make the best decision for their lives,” Cluff said.
In August, they decided to allow staff to decide for themselves and for parents to decide for their children on whether to mask up. Two staff members chose to keep the masks on.
A few weeks into the school year, Cluff said all parents signed a form, allowing their students to come to school maskless.
“They’ve loved not having to worry about masks,” he said.
“I don’t feel like I’m in the part of the world that’s shut down,” said 16-year-old Zach Caldwell, who has studied at the school for two years. “I feel like I’m in part of the world where I can learn and be open and free. When kids are sick, they just stay home.”
The statewide mask mandate was lifted April 10, but public health officials said the requirement needed to remain in schools for the following reasons:
- There’s no vaccine for children younger than 16.
- Not every adult in the school has gotten the shot.
- Children can get sick from COVID and have long-term effects.
- They can get COVID, not feel sick, and spread it to others.
Still, Cluff said their model has worked so far, adding that they have not had a single case of COVID-19 at the school. He said a few people were infected when they were out of school last year and a staff member got the virus not long ago outside the school.
An official at the Utah County Health Department told KSL-TV there was no record of any cases of COVID at the school.
“I’m kind of in the minority,” said Jared Bean, one of two employees at Alpine Valley Academy who chose to wear a mask.
Bean is a “mentor”, who works with the students at the school on a daily basis, answering questions and connecting them with resources to assist them in their learning.
“Nobody gives me a hard time for wearing (a mask). I don’t give anyone a hard time for not wearing one,” he said. “It seems like it’s worked for us.”
Alpine Valley doesn’t look or sound like a typical school, and students and staff will tell you it’s not supposed to.
The current mask requirement for public schools expires June 15, and it states that, “Local officials, like a school board or county council, don’t have the legal authority to end the mask requirement in schools before this date.”