Oklahoma’s law preventing schools from mandating masks is temporarily on hold due to a judge’s ruling Wednesday morning.
That means school districts can move forward with a mask requirement on school campuses potentially later this week or early next week, as long as the mandate gives parents the ability to opt out. Some districts, like Oklahoma City Public Schools and Santa Fe South charter school, already require masks with an opt-out provision where parents can fill out a form to request an exemption for their child to attend school without a mask for a personal, religious or medical reason.
“Today is a victory for families, the safeguarding of schoolchildren and their opportunity to learn in-person,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said in a statement. “The court’s striking of the mask mandate prohibition on (Senate Bill) 658 now enables schools to fulfill their duty to protect and ensure equal protection for all students, including those with disabilities and most vulnerable in our schools.”
Schools across the state have been reporting a higher level of COVID-19 spread than last year, requiring quarantines and, in some schools, a pivot to distance learning. Last week, Edmond Public Schools reported more than 380 students with COVID-19 and 3,000 in quarantine.
The law, signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in May, says a public school board or technology school district can only implement a mask mandate if they are under a state of emergency declared by the governor and they consult with local health officials, list the purpose of the mandate and the specific masks that meet the requirement, and reconsider the mandate at every regular board meeting.
The judge’s decision came in a civil lawsuit filed against the state and Stitt on Aug. 12 by several parents and the Oklahoma State Medical Association.
Here’s what else you need to know about Wednesday’s decision.
Q: What did the judge do?
A: Oklahoma County District Judge Natalie Mai issued a temporary injunction, halting only the mask mandate portion of the law until a full hearing can be held. A separate part of the law prohibiting schools from requiring COVID-19 vaccines was not impacted by the ruling and remains in place.
An attorney for the parents and medical association raised several issues, but Mai said the only one warranting the temporary injunction was equal protection — specifically that the law applies to public schools and not private schools. “The statute must have equal application to children who are required to be in school,” she said.
If private schools had been included in the provision, she said Wednesday’s hearing “would have taken two minutes,” and the law would have held up. (The vaccine mandate portion actually does apply to private colleges but not private K-12 schools.)
The injunction only affects K-12 schools and goes into effect later this week or early next week, likely Tuesday.
Q: What does that mean for schools?
A: On Wednesday the state Education Department said it will not enforce the mask mandate prohibition due to the lawsuit, and legal guidance will be provided to districts once the lawsuit is resolved.
Only a couple of public schools have issued mask mandates so far this year. One of those, Hulbert Public Schools near Tahlequah, only allows a medical exemption to its mask requirement and was publicly criticized by Stitt and Attorney General John O’Connor, who said in an Aug. 19 press release “schools should not be actively trying to undermine our constitutional structure of government by violating duly-enacted state law.”
That could have deterred others from following suit.
But several large districts have strengthened their stance on masks recently and may mandate because of the temporary injunction. Norman Public Schools, for instance, in an email to parents Tuesday said masks will be “expected” for anyone in school buildings beginning Sept. 7.
“State law prohibits us from mandating masks or vaccinations. As a public school district we will not work in opposition to the law, but I am imploring each and every one of you to help us keep our schools open,” Superintendent Nick Migliorino wrote.
Edmond Public Schools on Monday made a similar plea to parents. “Simply put, masks help,” wrote superintendent Angela Grunewald. “Without masks, the spread of Covid in our schools is much greater than last year.
Tulsa Public Schools has expected all students and staff to wear masks since the start of the school year.
Q: What happens next?
A: When the temporary injunction is issued, schools will be allowed to issue mask mandates as long as they include an opt-out provision. The court is also expected to schedule a hearing to consider a permanent injunction with a different judge.
Separately, a federal probe into the state’s mask mandate restrictions is expected to get underway to determine if the law discriminates against students with disabilities, the U.S. Department of Education told the state Education Department Monday. It’s unknown how the judge’s ruling will impact that investigation. The federal agency said it is not investigating states like Florida and Texas where mask mandate bans are not being enforced due to a court order or other action.
Q: What’s the status of mask mandate bans in other states?
A: Oklahoma is one of just six states with current bans on mask requirements in schools, according to Burbio, a data aggregation company. In three states, bans have been overturned: Arkansas, Texas and Florida. Arkansas’ governor said he made a mistake by signing the law and a judge temporarily blocked the state’s law in August; in response, dozens of Arkansas school districts implemented mask requirements the following week. In Texas, dozens of school districts are requiring masks in defiance of a governor’s order. The Texas Education Agency is not enforcing the order because of ongoing litigation.
Q: How did Oklahoma Governor Stitt react?
A: Shortly after the ruling was issued, Gov. Stitt tweeted that the ruling was “a victory for parental choice, personal responsibility and the rule of law” despite the fact that the ruling sided with the parents and medical group suing him. “I have been clear from the beginning that parents should have the right to make decisions about the health and education of their children,” Stitt’s tweet continued.
Stitt is referring to the parental exemptions the judge said must be included in any mask mandate. Previously, Stitt commended Santa Fe South charter school and Oklahoma City Public Schools for allowing an opt-out in their mask mandates.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister’s comments were from a written statement.
Jennifer Palmer has been a reporter with Oklahoma Watch since 2016 and covers education. Contact her at (405) 761-0093 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jpalmerOKC