Oklahoma’s largest school district will require masks for all students and staff, defying the governor and state Legislature that enacted a law this year banning schools from mandating face coverings to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel will announce the mask mandate Friday morning, according to three sources within the district who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the media.
The district did not have a comment.
Oklahoma City schools mandated masks last year but were forced to make them optional when the new school year started Monday because of the law change.
On Friday, McDaniel will make them mandatory for anyone on school property.
The governor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the district’s decision.
Gov. Kevin Stitt has said a mask mandate takes away a parent’s freedom to choose what is best for their child.
Other states with Republican governors have passed similar laws, including Texas, where large school districts, such as Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth, announced this week they will mandate masks.
A similar law in Arkansas was struck down by a judge earlier this month.
On Thursday, a group of parents and medical officials filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma County District Court challenging the law, which was first reported by the Tulsa World.
“The science stands firmly behind vaccinations and masking as important tools in stopping the spread of COVID-19,” said Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, which is a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “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.”
COVID cases are rising across Oklahoma and a majority of residents over the age of 12 are not yet fully vaccinated. Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive any of the COVID vaccines.
On Wednesday, Santa Fe South Schools, a charter school system in Oklahoma City, also announced it would mandate masks.
On Thursday, the school’s policy was updated to say students could be exempt for “personal” reasons.
The governor’s office appeared to see this change as a win.
“The governor appreciates that Santa Fe Charter Schools will continue to give parents the right to decide what is best for the health of their children,” said Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman for the governor, in an email statement on Thursday.
Senate Bill 658, which was passed in the state House and Senate along mostly partisan lines, 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” if the governor declares a state of emergency, which Stitt has not done.
But McDaniel believes the law gives him the ability to mandate masks as superintendent, according to a senior official with the district who spoke to The Frontier on the condition of anonymity.
On Monday, the Oklahoma City school board voted to give McDaniel the power to make decisions on how to respond to rising COVID cases, which could include closing a school because of an outbreak. There was no discussion about a mask requirement at the time, but the superintendent believes the law only limits the ability of school boards to mandate masks, the official said.
“School districts need to be able to protect their students and if there is a legal pathway to do so we should take it,” said Carrie Jacobs, an Oklahoma City school board member, when reached by phone Thursday afternoon and asked for comment on a possible mandate.
In a Wednesday interview, Rep. Kevin West, one of the bill’s authors, said he was disappointed to see schools oppose the law but he believed the governor would declare a state of emergency if it were necessary to protect students.
“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,” said West, R-Moore