While a new state law prohibits boards of education for Oklahoma public school districts from imposing mask mandates without an emergency order from the governor, the superintendents of Oklahoma City Public Schools and Santa Fe South Charter Schools announced mask requirements this week for students, staff and visitors. However, exemptions will be offered to families that meet certain criteria.
OKCPS Superintendent Sean McDaniel said, as of Thursday, there are 88 positive COVID-19 cases among students and 31 positive cases among teachers in the district.
“The requirement beginning on Monday is that we will wear masks universally in our school district, with opt-out potential for families who meet one of the criteria,” McDaniel said during a press conference this morning.
OKCPS students may receive exemptions from required masking for medical, religious and strong personal reasons.
“We know that kids, teachers, families have things that are going on in their lives that might prohibit them from wearing a mask. If I have a medical situation, if they have a religious exemption — to make somebody do something when they have those conditions or circumstances, we didn’t believe was the right approach,” McDaniel said. “Rather than calling this a mandate, which I know a lot of other folks are attaching that to it, we’re simply saying, like we do with other things in the school business, we’re going to require this, so it’s the rule, but we know there are exceptions to the rule.”
McDaniel said requests for exemptions based on “strong personal reasons” will be evaluated through multiple lenses.
“What we have done with immunizations is we allow them to tell their story, and we evaluate it through just the various lenses that we use,” McDaniel said. “We evaluate it through a legal lens, through a practical lens, through a policy rule lens. So there’s an evaluation that takes place through our HR department if a strong reason is given. I’m not going to give any examples. I can’t think of any right off the top of my head, but that’s the process. That’s the process we already use and that we will continue to use for masks.”
Santa Fe South Schools Superintendent Chris Brewster said in a letter this week that his district would require students, faculty, staff and visitors to wear masks. However, there is also an opt-out for students with personal, medical and religious reasons.
Gov. Kevin Stitt released a statement regarding the OKCPS and Santa Fe South mask policies on Friday morning.
“I appreciate that school districts like Santa Fe Charter Schools and Oklahoma City Public Schools are respecting parents’ rights to decide what is best for the health of their children and opt out of mask requirements if they choose,” Stitt said in the statement.
Legal action filed by Oklahoma State Medical Association
Republican legislators passed and Stitt signed SB 658 in May to limit the ability of boards of education to impose mask mandates. The new law has been controversial as COVID-19 case statistics have risen in recent weeks, and the governor of Arkansas has said he now regrets signing a similar law.
In response to SB 658, the Oklahoma State Medical Association and a few parents filed a petition (embedded below) in Oklahoma County District Court on Thursday claiming that the passage and implementation of the bill is unconstitutional.
One of the claims in the petition is that SB 658 violates Oklahoma children’s right to a free education in a safe environment.
OSMA President Dr. Mary Clarke issued a statement regarding the lawsuit on Twitter.
“The Oklahoma State Medical Association is committed to better health for Oklahoma. It’s even written into our mission statement. With this in mind, we are glad to sign on to the lawsuit to vacate SB 658 and any action that prevents Oklahoma schools from enacting policies that could keep their students, teachers and staff safe and healthy,” Clarke said in her statement. “The science stands firmly behind vaccinations and masking as important tools in stopping the spread of COVID-19. As we are experiencing record numbers of children infected by the Delta variant and hospitals are stretched to capacity, we must do everything we can to keep Oklahoma’s children safe.”
Clarke added that the legal action is not meant to be political.
“This is not a political stance; it is about public health and common sense. If schools can send students home for a lice infection, they should have the attitude and ability to issue a mask mandate,” she said.