Emily Snook has long worried about what might happen if her 7-year-old son Bennett gets COVID-19. A hereditary blood disorder makes it harder for his spleen to fight infections.
But with the safety precautions Bennett’s school put in place last year, including mandatory face masks, Snook felt comfortable sending him back to in-person class.
This year, a mask mandate is not an option because state lawmakers and the governor stripped that authority from schools.
Gov. Kevin Stitt said mandating masks took away a parent’s right to choose what is best for their student – “This is about personal responsibility. This is about freedoms,” Stitt said last month.
But Snook said the governor’s decision has limited her rights.
“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 Snook, who lives in Norman. “It feels like a less extreme version of outlawing wheelchair ramps because people want to have the freedom to only have steps.”
As a new variant of the coronavirus spreads rapidly in Oklahoma, Stitt has consistently said he does not plan to to sign an emergency declaration, which would trigger the only legal way public schools in the state can mandate masks again. Democrats have called for a special legislative session in order to overturn the new law but there appears to be no appetite for such a move among the Republican majority.
Some parents told The Frontier they were considering a return to virtual school because of a lack of mask mandates and other precautions. While anyone over age 12 is now eligible for the vaccine, only about 40 percent of Oklahomans are fully vaccinated.
Parents weigh the risks
Unable to vaccinate her son and without a mask mandate, Snook decided to enroll Bennett in virtual school this year. She had to commit to sending Bennett to the virtual school for an entire semester, a move that will require her to leave her job in order to also stay at home.
“I cried after I called the school to tell them,” Snook said last week. “I haven’t told my son yet.”
Other parents also told The Frontier they face the difficult choice of deciding between the hardships of virtual school and the potential for their children to become infected with the virus.
Virtual charter schools saw a 77 percent increase last year, according to the state Department of Education.
“My boys are 10 and five, they are not eligible to be vaccinated, and I’d rather their education be interrupted again than put them at risk,” said David Crow, the parent of two students in Jenks Public Schools.
As many schools prepare for a return to class this month, administrators only have the power to strongly encourage students and staff to wear masks.
“Our expectation is that every adult and student – regardless of vaccination status – wears a mask at all times indoors and outdoors when in the presence of others,” states the masking policy at Tulsa Public Schools, which will welcome back students on Aug. 19.
Oklahoma City Public Schools also plans to encourage mask use in its buildings. Edmond Public Schools recently updated signage on school doors from “masks are welcome” to “masks are encouraged.”
“While it is still a personal choice, we want (students) to know you are supported in wearing it,” said Angela Grunewald, superintendent of Edmond Public Schools.
“Covid is not behind us, it is still here and we must address it in the best way that we can.”
A resistance to mask mandates is nothing new in a Republican state like Oklahoma. Other Republican states have also eliminated the ability for schools to require masks over the past year.
In neighboring Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has called for a special legislative session to reverse similar legislation that he signed into law in April. Hutchinson, a Republican, now says that school districts should be able to decide whether to require masks after a rising number of COVID-19 cases in his state.
“In hindsight, I wish that it had not become law,” Hutchinson said.
Many Oklahoma school districts never required masks even as the number of COVID-19 cases crested last year. Most districts held in-person classes for the bulk of the year.
The state’s two largest districts, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, conducted most of last school year virtually, drawing Stitt’s ire. The governor regularly complained about the two school systems and called on parents to lobby their local school board’s to reinstate in-person classes.
State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and many health officials said the best way to ensure in-person class was to require masks, which have been proven to significantly reduce the spread of COVID-19.
At one point last year, the state Department of Education was engaged in talks with Stitt’s office over a plan to require in-person learning in exchange for a mask mandate. But Stitt ultimately pulled away from the negotiations.
While Stitt said his objection to school mask mandates was motivated by a desire to give individuals and parents the right to make their own decisions, the governor has not consistently followed that philosophy. In November, Stitt said he would not take away a municipal government’s right to order a mask mandate.
The governor’s critics have pounced on the contradiction.
“It is frustrating that leadership in this state has championed local control until now when the lives of our children are at stake,” said Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, who is a former teacher.
Snook also sees a contradiction in preventing mask mandates.
“I’ve been a Republican my entire life, I am unequivocally pro-life and believe in local control,” Snook said. “So it’s illogical what our governor and our state Legislature is doing because it’s contradictory to their own stated values because we have turned this into such a political culture war.
“To me, a consistent pro-life philosophy would be to do everything we can to protect the wellness of kids, especially vulnerable kids.”
Race to vaccinate
Teachers, including some with compromised immune systems, have also complained about schools’ inability to mandate masks.
Ted Hartley, a math teacher at Harding Charter Preparatory High School in Oklahoma City, recently underwent a kidney transplant that makes him more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Hartley said he plans to require face masks in his classroom regardless of what state law says.
“I’m a tough guy, they are going to have to come get me if they really want to go that far,” he said.
Hartley is vaccinated but not every teacher is.
Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel said around 60 percent of his district’s teachers are fully vaccinated, according to self-reported numbers.
“Based on everything we know, if you wear a mask and if you get vaccinated … it gives us a better chance to do what we said is our priority, which is keep kids in school,” McDaniel said.