Oklahoma City Public Schools issues mask mandate, confronting state law
Oklahoma City Public Schools will require face coverings on school property regardless of vaccination status, becoming the second school district to resist a state law prohibiting mask mandates in schools.
Superintendent Sean McDaniel announced his decision Friday morning.
Oklahoma City schools started a new year on Monday. Earlier in the week, McDaniel touted the layers of mitigation strategies the district had in place, such as air filtration, cleaning, contact tracing and testing.
But on Friday, he said those measures aren't enough.
In the first three days of school, the district's number of active COVID-19 cases surged from four to 119, he said. The district had 88 students and 31 employees test positive by Wednesday.
"As we started school and began to see the numbers go up very, very quickly, we did not believe we had done everything we needed to do," McDaniel said at a virtual press conference Friday.
In his announcement, McDaniel referenced new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises universal indoor masking in schools for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
Families and students can request an exemption to the mask requirement if they believe they can't comply because of medical, religious or strong personal reasons. Employees who don't wish to comply can request special accommodations on the basis of disability.
Santa Fe South Charter Schools became the first to shirk a state law discouraging mask requirements in public schools. Superintendent Chris Brewster informed school families and the public on Wednesday that he would implement a mandate.
Senate Bill 658 prohibits school boards from mandating mask wearing unless the governor issues an emergency declaration for their area. Gov. Kevin Stitt said he doesn't intend to give an emergency order.
The governor complimented Oklahoma City and Santa Fe South schools for offering an opt-out option to their mask requirements.
"I appreciate that school districts like Santa Fe (South) Charter Schools and Oklahoma City Public Schools are respecting parents’ rights to decide what is best for the health of their children and opt out of mask requirements if they choose," Stitt said in a statement Friday.
McDaniel noted SB 658 prohibits school boards, not superintendents or district administrators, from ordering a mandate.
"I think I'm actually upholding the law by taking this route because it is specific to school boards," McDaniel said.
In the Oklahoma City district, the school board charged McDaniel with most decision-making authority on COVID-19 matters. While many districts kept that responsibility with their school board members, Oklahoma City delegated its coronavirus response to its superintendent.
Rep. Kevin West, an author of SB 658, said the idea that this is a loophole in the law is "misguided thinking." West, R-Moore, said a school board cannot delegate power they don't already have.
"Make no mistake, this is a blatant violation of state law and is designed to take away the rightful authority that parents have to make such decisions for their children," West said in a statement. "SB 658 has given that authority to the individual citizens, period."
Even if the district is violating state law, state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said it's "difficult for me to imagine punishing people who are fulfilling their duty to protect those within their care."
“It’s tragic that educators have been forced into a position where they feel they must risk violating a law in order to protect the health and safety of school children and staff, but that’s sadly where we are," Hofmeister said in a statement.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said Stitt's response should be a signal to other superintendents that they also could implement mask mandates. However, McDaniel said he won't contact leaders of other districts to urge them into similar action.
McDaniel's decision to require masks has the Oklahoma City school board's full support, Board Chairperson Paula Lewis said.
"The Board and I voted unanimously last Monday to give Dr. McDaniel the authority to make decisions quickly that are in the best interest of our kids," Lewis said in a statement to The Oklahoman. "His actions today are simply another example of why we continue to believe Dr. McDaniel is the right person to lead this district."
Along with a mask mandate, McDaniel decided to close all district campuses to outside visitors during the school day.
He pledged $1,000 in federal aid funds to every staff member who chooses to take a COVID-19 vaccine. After vaccine clinic attendance waned at Oklahoma City schools over the summer, the district is scheduling more clinics at its middle and high schools to offer vaccinations to students and their families.
Anyone age 12 and older is eligible for a Pfizer vaccine. Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are approved only for adults.
"It is imperative that we take action — especially when it comes to the protection of our youngest and most vulnerable students who cannot be vaccinated at this time," McDaniel said in his announcement.
Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.