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Education

Masks Will Be Required At Oklahoma City Public Schools Starting Monday

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Robby Korth / StateImpact Oklahoma
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Oklahoma City Public Schools briefs the media before welcoming students back to school August 9.

Oklahoma's largest traditional public school district is implementing a mask mandate, despite a state law prohibiting them.

Oklahoma City Public Schools students and staff will have to mask up, starting Monday. OKCPS believes it found a loophole in Senate Bill 658, which says school boards can’t require masks. Instead, superintendent Sean McDaniel is taking it upon himself to implement one.

CDC guidelines suggest universal mask wearing in schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But the newly signed law says that without a state of emergency, schools can’t implement a mask mandate. Gov. Kevin Stitt, has said he’s unlikely to declare one.

But McDaniel says a rise in more than 100 COVID-19 cases during the first week of school meant a masking requirement was necessary.

“As we saw the numbers climbing, [I] thought it was important that as the superintendent of schools, my job is to make decisions every day with the priority being health and safety,” he said.

McDaniel says he also wants to encourage staff to get vaccinated. OKCPS employees who are vaccinated by November 15 will be eligible for a $1,000 stipend. And all high school students will have an opportunity to get a Pfizer vaccine at school before fall break.

Stitt seemed to endorse the plan in a statement Friday. He applauded OKCPS for allowing an opt-out choice to parents and students.

“I appreciate that school districts like Santa Fe [South] Charter Schools and Oklahoma City Public Schools are respecting parents’ rights to decide what is best for the health of their children and opt out of mask requirements if they choose,” he said in the statement.

McDaniel said there will be a written process for students to opt out, and staff will have to go through human resources to do so.

State schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister blasted the law that made the legal maneuvering necessary.

“It’s tragic that educators have been forced into a position where they feel they must risk violating a law in order to protect the health and safety of school children and staff, but that’s sadly where we are,” she said in a statement to StateImpact. "It’s difficult for me to imagine punishing people who are fulfilling their duty to protect those within their care."

The state has faced mounting pressure from school boards, parents and doctors to allow schools to implement mask mandates. Earlier this week, Tulsa Public Schools announced it would be open to legal action against the state and, on Thursday, the Oklahoma Medical Association and a handful of public school parents filed a lawsuit against the state government, legislature and Stitt in Oklahoma County.

McDaniel's move could open the floodgates for similar mask requirement policies across the state. But he said he hadn’t specifically talked to other districts.

“We have to make decisions for our own district, our own community. So I would not be reaching out to anybody else saying you need to get on board with this,” McDaniel said. “I would respect any decision that any other board superintendent, group of leaders make and support that.”

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