With schools across Oklahoma beginning to welcome students back to the classroom amid a state- and region-wide surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, Gov. Kevin Stitt's office said Tuesday morning his position has not changed regarding a legal prohibition on public school districts from requiring masks.
"Governor Stitt supports parents’ fundamental right to make health care decisions for their minor children," Stitt communications director Carly Atchison said in response to an email inquiry regarding calls for the governor to declare a health emergency. Under a law the governor signed in May, such a declaration is a necessary step for a local school board to be able to legally require masks in school buildings as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The affirmation from the governor comes as Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state's largest public school district, began its year Monday amid calls from state Democrats, physicians and Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, the state's top elected education official, calling for a return of local control to allow school boards to decide whether or not to implement mask requirements.
"What we're asking for... is the return of local control, so it would be a local issue for each of these districts in the state of Oklahoma," Tulsa Public Schools Board of Education President Stacey Woolley said on a Monday Facebook Live panel event calling for an emergency declaration.
"It's really interesting to see the governor of Arkansas pointing out that that would be the most conservative thing to do, return that local control -- I never thought I'd be quoting the governor of Arkansas," Woolley said, referring to Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson's recent statements of regret that he had signed a similar law to Oklahoma's which banned mask mandates in schools.
"Again, this isn't political. This genuinely isn't political. This is protection of the people who have no other option than for the adults in the room to protect them. Period," Woolley said.
Dr. Jabraan Pasha, assistant dean of student affairs and associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Oklahoma's School of Community Medicine -- who the host noted was appearing on the panel in a personal and not institutional capacity -- said with the Delta variant of the coronavirus being more infectious, mask requirements in schools are the right policy for the moment.
"We saw how things went with school last year, right? But you have a more infectious virus, and then you have, possibly have, kids and teachers who aren't all universally wearing masks, you can imagine what that situation will turn into," Pasha said.
"We can just kind of look to see how things are going in school districts who are starting school a little bit earlier than we are. And there was a school in Mississippi a couple of weeks ago who does not have a mask mandate who lasted in-person for seven days. Seven days. I don't know why we would expect things to be any different here in Oklahoma," Pasha said.
Woolley also noted that while public schools in Oklahoma are forbidden from implementing the proven COVID-19 mitigation strategy of universal mask requirements, private schools are instituting such policies.
"There is a whole other issue around, you know, essentially who will be more protected than others," Woolley said. "Our students in public school we know, in Tulsa Public Schools, we're approximately 83% lower socioeconomic status -- we're saying those kids we don't have the right to implement a mask mandate for."
"It sounds like the plot to an Edgar Allan Poe story," replied Rep. John Waldron (D-Tulsa), a former schoolteacher also on the panel.
Waldron has signed on to fellow Tulsa Democrat Rep. Melissa Provenzano's "Safe at School Act" to repeal parts of the law banning school mask requirements, though without a special legislative session called by either the governor or a two-thirds majority of each legislative chamber, the bill will not be considered.
“Senate Bill 658 cripples the ability of local school districts to act quickly when needed,” Provenzano said. “Needs across Oklahoma are different, and schools need to be able to make decisions about safety based on local data rather than waiting for the Governor to declare a state of emergency. I’ve been contacted by more parents than I can count asking how to keep their kids safe at school when they return. So many of us have witnessed the awful reality of Covid up close and personal. Enough is enough. It is time to protect our children.”