Oklahoma judge puts temporary hold on law banning mask mandates in schools
Oklahoma's controversial ban on school mask mandates has been put on hold.
An Oklahoma County District Court judge on Wednesday imposed a temporary injunction on Senate Bill 658.
The Oklahoma State Department of Education announced it will not enforce the school mask mandate prohibition in light of the ruling.
District Judge Natalie Mai ruled in favor of the Oklahoma State Medical Association and a group of parents suing to overturn the bill. The judge granted the plaintiffs' request for a temporary pause on the effects of the law.
SB 658, which took effect July 1, blocks public school boards from enacting a mask mandate unless the governor issues an emergency declaration for the district's locality.
Gov. Kevin Stitt has said repeatedly he will not make an emergency order, effectively blocking public schools from requiring face coverings.
However, the bill had no effect on private K-12 schools, several of which have freely implemented mask requirements.
Mai said the bill's inconsistent application to public and private schools was her greatest concern with the legislation.
The judge echoed the wishes of the state Legislature that parents make the final choice on their children's mask wearing.
"Parental choice is extremely important to the Legislature," Mai said during the court hearing. "Any requirement whatsoever must have that option available to the parent."
She said her ruling only impacts masking policies in K-12 schools, not to other parts of the law. SB 658 also prohibits K-12 schools and public and private colleges from requiring vaccinations, and it bars them from singling out unvaccinated individuals for vaccine and mask mandates.
Oklahoma Education Secretary Ryan Walters said Mai's ruling reinforced the governor and Legislature's view that parents should have the choice to opt out of mask wearing. The governor called the ruling a "victory" in a social media post Wednesday.
"That, to us, was key to hear that from a judge and reaffirm the position that the governor and I and the state Legislature has held," Walters said.
The temporary injunction is expected to take effect Sept. 8 once a journal entry is filed following the ruling. Mai's court order will remain until another hearing takes place for a judge to make a permanent decision.
Attorney General John O'Connor called Mai's injunction "very limited" and applauded the judge's support for opt-out policies.
"While we disagree that any part of the law is unconstitutional, my office will take the time afforded to us to determine the best legal strategy moving forward," O'Connor said in a statement.
Because of the ongoing lawsuit, the state Department of Education will not prevent schools from requiring masks, state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said.
"Today is a victory for families, the safeguarding of schoolchildren and their opportunity to learn in-person," Hofmeister said in a statement. "The court’s striking of the mask mandate prohibition on SB 658 now enables schools to fulfill their duty to protect and ensure equal protection for all students, including those with disabilities and most vulnerable in our schools."
The U.S. Department of Education notified state officials on Monday it will open a civil rights investigation into SB 658.
The federal agency's Office of Civil Rights will explore whether it unlawfully takes away the opportunity for in-person learning for students with disabilities, who could be at heightened risk of severe COVID-19 illness.
Walters said the investigation is federal overreach into a state issue.
"Having the federal government step into the state of Oklahoma and try to bully Oklahomans into adopting a certain policy is not something we’re going to stand for," he said. "The Biden administration is way out of line, and we will push back when they try to enter into the state of Oklahoma and dictate to our parents what decisions should be made for their child.”
Four Oklahoma parents and the Oklahoma State Medical Association filed the lawsuit to overturn SB 658 on Aug. 12, arguing the school mask mandate ban was unconstitutional.
Their attorney, Chad Taylor, said there's no rational basis to allow mask mandates in private schools but prohibit them in public schools.
"COVID doesn't care about your race," Taylor said. "COVID doesn't care about your ethnicity. It doesn't care about your income status. It doesn't care if you're a public school or a private school.
"The safety and the risk is the same for each group. That's what makes this law unconstitutional."
Bryan Cleveland, of the Oklahoma Attorney General's Office, argued the state Legislature was well within its authority to govern public schools when it passed SB 658.
Cleveland also questioned the efficacy of masks as reason to keep the law in place. He contended mask policies are supported by "glorified anecdotes" rather than scientific evidence.
"The science isn't really there for it," Cleveland said during the hearing.
Taylor countered by pointing to the Oklahoma State Department of Health's guidance for COVID-19 prevention in schools.
The first mitigation strategy the Health Department recommends is "consistent and correct use of masks."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend universal masking in K-12 schools to prevent transmission of COVID-19. CDC studies have shown mask wearing helps reduce spread of the disease.
Supporters of the effort to overturn the law celebrated the ruling.
Havilah Bagnaro, a mother of three in Edmond Public Schools, said she fears for her youngest son's safety when he attends school with no mask mandate. She said he suffers from a seizure disorder brought on by illness.
"If they want to make it a personal liberty thing, it's an infringement on my personal liberty to be able to send my kids to school safely without worry if there aren't mask mandates in place for children K-12," Bagnaro said.
The ruling is "just a first step" in returning COVID-19 mitigation decisions to local school boards, said Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association.
"We must all do our part to keep the community safe," Clarke said in a statement. "This includes allowing our schools and businesses the freedom to develop mitigation efforts that can slow the spread of this terrible virus."
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.