Oklahoma House Democrats are calling for a special session to repeal the law now pre-empting school boards from requiring masks because of COVID-19.
The law requires an emergency declaration from the governor before schools implement a mask mandate. House Minority Leader Emily Virgin said school boards know the most about what’s happening in their communities.
"With school starting in the next week or so, we think that it's imperative that locally elected school boards have the ability to respond to the pandemic in the way that they see fit and require masks if they think that that's what they need to prevent a return to virtual learning," Virgin said.
Tulsa Reps. Melissa Provenzano and John Waldron are both educators. Provenzano said with the Delta variant driving up the infection rate, schools need all the tools they can get to keep teachers and students safe, especially those kids too young to get COVID vaccines.
"The principal in me worries about our little ones. The aunt in me to a 5-year-old who can't get vaccinated is terrified, and that little 5-year-old has the right to come to school," Provenzano said.
The seven-day average of new, confirmed COVID infections is currently more than 10 times worse than it was in April 2020 when all schools in the state were directed to move to distance learning. Waldron said with a more-contagious virus, banning masks makes it more likely schools will see times where too many teachers and students are infected.
"Right now, one person out of every 105 in Claremore has the infection. Are you going to be able to keep schools going? No, and screaming personal freedom is not going to protect those kids, it's not going to keep those schools running, it's going to push us back into virtual mode. And it's entirely unnecessary," Waldron said.
Several districts had to retreat to distance learning last school year after returning in-person. In many cases, schools had too few teachers or support staff to keep things running.
House Speaker Charles McCall’s office referred comments on the call for a special session to Rep. Kevin West (R-Moore), who wrote the bill Democrats want repealed. West said while he has not conferred with Gov. Kevin Stitt’s office on the conditions that might make an emergency declaration appropriate, he thinks Stitt would declare one if enough counties made a case, and the law allows them for specific areas.
"You know, if we had a dozen counties say that the governor and the health officials felt like needed this, he could declare an emergency for those areas. So, we can be statewide, we can be down to an individual county. I think there's still a lot of flexibility within all of that," West said.
Stitt's office has not said what metrics might trigger a new public health emergency declaration. West and some fellow Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, want an executive order issued or special session called to ban COVID vaccine requirements for health care workers.