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Hofmeister On Mask Mandates: Oklahoma 'School Leaders Need To Do The Right Thing'

Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister speak at a press conference in March 2020.
Robby Korth / StateImpact Oklahoma
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister address the media during a press conference March 12, 2020 about COVID-19 and the potential for school closures.

Following a memorandum from President Joe Biden on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sent a letter admonishing Oklahoma for its efforts to limit universal masking in schools.

Cardona was clear in his message to Oklahoma, blocking mask mandates in schools is harmful and puts children at risk.

“This State level action against science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 appears to restrict the development of local health and safety policies and is at odds with the school district planning process embodied in the U.S. Department of Education’s… interim final requirements,” Cardona stated in the letter.

The letter was addressed to Gov. Kevin Stitt and state schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister.

Stitt sent StateImpact a statement about the letter Thursday:

“Oklahomans overwhelmingly believe parents should make decisions about their kids, not the government. The fact that President Biden is focused on telling Oklahomans how to parent their kids while he turns his back on the American citizens trapped by terrorists in Afghanistan is another example in his pattern of poor judgment,” he said in the statement.

StateImpact’s Robby Korth sat down with Hofmeister to discuss its contents and Oklahoma City Public Schools’ masking requirement rules.

Robby Korth: So let’s talk about the letter you received yesterday. So what was your… when you got it and sort of what was your reaction?

Joy Hofmeister: Well, I usually don’t see my emails until the end of the night, but I did see that it came in late afternoon. And of course, you know, I happen to agree with Ronald Reagan, who said those closest to any problem or situation or challenge are best suited to address it. We know that when our local districts last year had the opportunity to consult with their county health professionals, to look at the actual spread and transmission where it was located and together determine if they needed to keep doors open or how to best mitigate spread, that was something that occurred locally. We have empowered the governance structure for public schools through locally elected school board members and in this case, where we are absent of a state requirement that provides that duty to protect during a global pandemic, then it has to fall to those local school districts. We have to put the health and safety of our children first and those who serve in schools as well. And right now, we have hundreds of thousands of children attending public school who have not yet had an opportunity to be vaccinated. And we have a duty to protect them.

Korth: Do you want more policies like OKCPS’s in the state? Do you want every school district to have something like that?

Hofmeister: Well, I do support what Sean McDaniel has done, and I think that it is the right balance. But what we are seeing is most people want to wear that mask on, those families that don’t have the opportunity to say no. And yet he has not seen very many people go through that process to make that known. So this is, I think, going to help Oklahoma City Public Schools have fewer infections and fewer infections mean less quarantine and less disruption.

Korth: Yeah, but why shouldn’t superintendents and school boards be afraid of Senate Bill 658? Because, you know, it says in state law you can’t have a massive mandate. Right. And so why shouldn't they be fearful of implementing a policy like, OKCPS has?

Hofmeister: So here’s the difference: a mask mandate says you can’t walk in the door without a mask. We see that there’s an opportunity in the way our school districts have had a requirement or an expectation. But that stated requirement by Oklahoma City Public Schools is a good example of how to do it right. They have allowed for the process for parental opt out, which is the same as we have had in the state regarding certain vaccines for many, many years. That is where they have both the provision of applying that duty to protect and adhering to state law in place.

Korth: Yeah, back to the letter. It intimates that, hey, if schools can’t do universal masking, we might miss out on some American Rescue Plan funds. Are you worried about that? And you know, what’s sort of your reaction to that?

Hofmeister: I am not worried about that. Here’s the bottom line. School leaders need to do the right thing. We are in a pandemic. We are in an emergency. They need to always have the confidence that putting students first and taking care of them and their duty and obligation to protect them is the first priority.

Robby Korth joined KOSU as its news director in November 2022.
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