Aug. 31, 2021

Oklahoma’s Ban on School Mask Mandates Facing Federal Investigation

A first-grader in a mask works on an assignment at Positive Tomorrows, a private elementary school for homeless students in Oklahoma City. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Hello, readers. Students are adjusting to a new school year that is, in most cases, more unstable and uncertain than last year — with COVID-19 infections, quarantines, and teacher absences. A handful of districts have already pivoted to distance learning.

And the battle over school mask mandates is escalating. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights notified Oklahoma and four other states that their bans on universal masking in schools is under investigation for possible civil rights violations. (Here’s the letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.)

The investigation will center on whether those policies threaten access to education for students with disabilities, some of whom are at higher risk for experiencing severe illness from COVID-19. Without universal masking, those students may not feel safe attending school in-person, but federal law protects their right to receive education alongside their peers.

The other states contacted by the department Monday are Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.

Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona are not currently under investigation because bans in those states are not being enforced due to a court order or other state action.

Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association and a special education teacher, said “This is a serious allegation. An investigation by the Office of Civil Rights is not a partisan skirmish to be dismissed. Our students’ safety and education should be everyone’s top priority. Our kids need to be in school. The best way to do that safely is by allowing local school boards to establish the safety protocols needed to keep students safe and schools open to in person learning.  SB 658 has handcuffed our locally elected school boards from doing what’s best for their communities. Our leaders have put our most vulnerable students at risk, and now their critical federal funding is in jeopardy, too.”

Hofmeister also commented on the investigation. “Regrettably, we are not surprised by this civil rights investigation spurred by passage of a state law prohibiting mask requirements in Oklahoma public schools. That law, Senate Bill 658, is preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in-person. We will fully cooperate with USDE,” she said.

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s communications director, Carly Atchison had this to say:

— Jennifer Palmer

What I’m reading

  • Oklahoma’s attorney general is trying to block public school mask requirements that violate state law. [Public Radio Tulsa]
  • A 10-year-old boy with an autoimmune disease couldn’t return to school without a mask mandate. [ProPublica]
  • An unvaccinated, unmasked teacher infected a dozen students with coronavirus in California, according to a CDC study released Friday. [Education Week]
  • Reports of cheating in college has soared during the pandemic, but it’s unclear whether cheating or universities’ detection of cheating increased. [NPR]

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