More Oklahoma school districts require COVID-19 masks, citing court order
With a court order in hand, more Oklahoma City area school districts have required mask wearing, but not all are sold on the policy.
Edmond Public Schools was the first in the metro area to cite a decision from Oklahoma County District Judge Natalie Mai while implementing a new mask requirement. Mai ruled last week districts could mandate face coverings as long as families could opt out of the policy.
The Putnam City, Yukon, Midwest City-Del City and Noble school districts followed with mask requirements that allow for exemptions.
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Each district referenced untenable levels of COVID-19 cases.
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“Staffing shortages are becoming more difficult to overcome,” Noble Superintendent Frank Solomon wrote when announcing the updated masking policy. “We simply can’t keep going at this rate.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends universal masking in K-12 schools as a critical way to curb COVID-19's spread.
Yukon Superintendent Jason Simeroth said the number of students and staff testing positive tripled over the first three weeks of the school year in his district.
Sixteen employees and 99 students tested positive last week, according to Yukon’s COVID-19 dashboard.
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Court ruling allows schools to enforce COVID rules
Without Mai’s ruling, Simeroth said Yukon would have remained a mask-optional district.
“One of the things that we’ve told our community is that we will follow the law, and up until then any kind of enforcement or increase in a mask policy was against the rules,” he said. “We wouldn’t have gone that route had the injunction not been put in place.”
Mai placed a temporary hold on Senate Bill 658. The state law, which the state Legislature passed in May, prohibited public school boards from mandating mask wearing in their districts unless the governor issues a state of emergency for their area.
Gov. Kevin Stitt has said repeatedly he has no plans to issue an emergency order for any part of Oklahoma.
The judge said she took issue with the law’s inconsistent application to public K-12 schools and private schools. Because private schools are free to require masks, Mai ruled that public schools could do so as well, but only if they allow families to opt out for religious, medical or strong personal reasons.
The Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office appealed Mai’s decision to the state Supreme Court on Thursday. Mai’s temporary injunction will remain in effect until district Judge Sheila Stinson makes a permanent ruling or until Supreme Court justices overrule it on appeal.
Some districts, like Oklahoma City Public Schools and Santa Fe South Charter Schools, had already slipped through a loophole in SB 658 by having their superintendents issue the mask mandate in lieu of their school boards.
Stitt was supportive of Oklahoma City and Santa Fe South schools for allowing families to opt out. He called Mai’s ruling a “victory for parental choice, personal responsibility and the rule of law” in a social media post.
Some Oklahoma school districts keep COVID masks optional
But not all metro-area districts have used the court order to enact a mask requirement.
Large suburban districts like Norman, Moore and Mustang continue to encourage or expect — but not require — face coverings.
Moore Superintendent Robert Romines said a requirement with three avenues to opt out isn’t a mask mandate at all. Last year, Moore allowed only medical exemptions to the policy.
This time, any family could choose not to participate simply because they disagree with it. Romines said the number of students who won’t participate is likely going to be high in Moore and, in the district’s large high schools especially, it would be a policy that’s “almost impossible” to police.
“You walk through the grocery stores and the different shops in this community, and there’s not a whole lot of mask compliance with our adults,” Romines said. “You’re going to see that same thing with our students, in my opinion. I do not believe that we would have a high percentage of mask wearing or a lot higher percentage than we do now.”
Suburban districts that require mask wearing have found far greater numbers of students opting out than in the urban core. In Edmond, 2,772 of the district’s 25,400 students opted out — nearly 11%.
The Oklahoma City school district, with 31,000 students, had only 149 opt out – about 0.5%.
About 11% of Yukon’s student body said they won’t wear masks. The district asked all of its families to fill out forms to opt in or out of its mask requirement. More than a thousand of the 9,100 students in Yukon schools decided against face coverings, the district superintendent said.
“We wanted everybody to let us know what their choices were,” Simeroth said. “We didn’t want to seem like it was directed at any particular opinion, so we wanted to know both sides.”
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.