An Oklahoma City charter school plans to enforce a mask mandate for all students, staff and visitors in order to fight the spread of COVID-19, ignoring a state law enacted this year that stripped schools of the authority to require face coverings.
Santa Fe South Schools, a charter school district in south Oklahoma City, announced Wednesday it will require masks for anyone on school grounds, according to a letter posted online by Superintendent Chris Brewster.
“I am operating within the advice of my attorneys and doing my very best to protect my kids at the schools first,” Brewster told The Frontier Wednesday afternoon.
Brewster would not say what specific legal advice he received that made him confident he could require masks but said he is “willing to confront” potential legal challenges.
“We will strictly enforce this at all times. Again, this is a requirement, and should not be considered optional for anyone at any time, unless they have confirmation from their physician that mask-wearing is not required,” Brewster wrote in the letter.
As COVID-19 cases rise across the state and schools welcome back students, health officials have said masking and vaccination are the best ways to stop the spread and protect students and school staff.
Oklahomans under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine and the state Legislature and governor approved a law earlier this year that prevents a school from enforcing a mask mandate, unless a state of emergency is declared by the governor.
Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Kevin West, one of the bill’s authors, said he was disappointed to see schools oppose the law but pointed out there are no specific penalties in the legislation.
“We did not put any penalties in there, we did not put anything in there where the state Department of Education writes rules,” said West, R-Moore. “But if a school chooses to violate the law they are opening themselves up to a civil lawsuit from parents. That’s really just parental involvement. Beyond that I guess we will see what happens.”
COVID-19 cases have increased significantly in recent weeks and now mirror levels not seen since February. Hospitals across the state have reported capacity issues and just 40 percent of Oklahomans are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to the state Department of Health.
Oklahoma has the 11th-worst vaccination rate in the nation, according to data compiled by the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Similar laws banning schools from enforcing mask mandates have been passed in other states, including Texas, where this week several large school districts, including Dallas and Austin, announced they would still require masks.
In Arkansas, where lawmakers also banned schools from requiring masks, Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently said he regretted the move and wants lawmakers to overturn the decision in a special session.
West said Oklahoma’s law is different because Stitt could declare a state of emergency that would grant schools the power to mandate masks. In Arkansas, Hutchinson called for an unsuccessful special session to overturn the ban. A judge later blocked the Arkansas law.
“I’ve never got the impression that (Stitt) would be so bull-headed as to refuse to do an emergency just because he doesn’t want masks to be mandated in schools,” West said.
Santa Fe South Schools is the first school system in Oklahoma to announce they will challenge the law but Tulsa Public Schools plans to discuss possible legal action, the Tulsa World reported Wednesday.
“I’ve been hearing actively from parents every day who are asking us to do more to protect their students,” Tulsa board President Stacey Woolley told the Tulsa World. “I feel it is incumbent upon us to do something.”
Oklahoma City Public Schools officials said the district has no plans to take similar action.
“We are not moving in that direction at this time,” said Beth Harrison, a spokeswoman for the district.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all students age two and older, including school staff, wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status.
Many school districts, including Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Edmond and Norman, have strongly recommended mask wearing by their students and staff.
Masks are needed in schools “partially related to the fact that we don’t have enough of the critical mass vaccinated yet,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, speaking at a town hall last week in Boston.
Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has said she wants lawmakers to again allow schools to enforce mask requirements. She is urging the governor to declare a state of emergency.
“I would strongly encourage students and staff and school personnel to consider masking indoors, to think of this in the same way we think of second hand smoke, we know that this causes danger to others around us as well as the one who is smoking,” Hofmeister told KOCO.
The new law says, “A board of education of a public school district or a technology center school district may only implement a mandate to wear a mask or any other medical device after consultation with the local county health department or city-county health department within the jurisdiction of where the board is located and when the jurisdiction of where the board is located is under a current state of emergency declared by the Governor.”
While the governor had previously said he would never take away a city government’s ability to mandate masks, Stitt has said the law was necessary to give parents the freedom to choose if they want their child to wear a mask.
But some parents told The Frontier the lack of a mask mandate has taken away their freedom to safely send their children to school.
“It has taken away our choices, it has taken away our choice to be able to send him to school because it’s too risky,” said Emily Snook, the mother of a second-grade student in Norman who has a hereditary blood disorder.
Brewster, superintendent of Santa Fe South, said he believed his community of families would support his decision to enforce a mask mandate.
“They place a very high expectation on us to care for their children,” Brewster said. “In fact, that is the central motivation on a decision like this – our community rightfully expects their kids to be safe at school.”