State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said on Tuesday that she considers it unacceptable that a sizeable number of Oklahoma school districts have declined to require masks as they reopen for in-person instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a press conference in Stillwater with Gov. Kevin Stitt, Interim Commissioner of Health Col. Lance Frye, Oklahoma Health Care Authority CEO Kevin Corbett, and Interim State Epidemiologist Jared Taylor, Hofmeister was asked about recent reporting from StateImpact Oklahoma that roughly two-thirds of school districts in highest-risk areas are not requiring masks of staff or students.
"It's not acceptable," Hofmeister said, "and that is something that we are going to see, I think, changes occur, school by school. It is clear that those who are following the data, that are paying attention to numbers, that are working with their local health departments, are coming to that conclusion and adding policies" around mandatory masking.
As of Tuesday, StateImpact Oklahoma reported that more than 130 districts across the state had had confirmed cases of COVID-19 among faculty, staff, or students. Hofmeister stressed that those cases come with significant disruption to learning.
"Our kids need schools open, and the absolute best way for that to happen -- because fewer cases mean fewer quarantined, and fewer possibilities of tragedy -- is for everyone to wear a mask for their friends, family, and neighbors," Hofmeister said.
"Masks mitigate spread. It's that simple."
Overwhelming consensus from public health experts and officials has concluded that mask-wearing is a critical factor in lowering infection rates. Stitt has said he supports mask mandates at the local level, but has vowed never to implement a statewide mandate.
Hofmeister had urged the State Board of Education to implement a series of requirements for districts to follow when reopening, but she was rejected. Each local school board in Oklahoma has the freedom to reopen in whatever way and with whatever safety measures they see fit.