Judge Temporarily Halts Mask Mandate Ban In Oklahoma Schools
An Oklahoma County district court judge issued an injunction temporarily halting Oklahoma’s ban on mask mandates in schools, Wednesday morning.
In a courtroom where guests were required to wear masks, Judge Natalie Mai ruled public school districts should be able to require students and teachers to do the same - at least temporarily.
The Oklahoma State Medical Association applauded the injunction. The doctors’ member organization is one of the lead plaintiffs in a suit filed against the state of Oklahoma over the ban on mask mandates in schools.
"We are pleased with the outcome of today’s hearing; however, this is just a first step in ensuring our schools maintain local control and can choose the best path for their students, faculty and staff,” OSMA President Mary Clarke said in a written statement. “It’s important to remember that while we’ve seen how easily COVID can spread in schools, the virus doesn’t stay within the school walls. For each infected student, there is a risk of additional infections amongst their friends, family and the community.”
Hours after the hearing, State Superintendent for Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister applauded the decision. She said education officials would not enforce the ban on mask mandates in schools, paving the way for mask mandates in schools statewide.
“Today is a victory for families, the safeguarding of schoolchildren and their opportunity to learn in-person," Hofmeister said in a statement. "The court’s striking of the mask mandate prohibition on SB 658 now enables schools to fulfill their duty to protect and ensure equal protection for all students, including those with disabilities and most vulnerable in our schools."
She continued, "We are pleased the judge granted a temporary injunction on SB 658 regarding mask mandates. The Oklahoma State Department of Education will not enforce the mask mandate prohibition due to this pending litigation. Further guidance will be provided once the litigation concludes.”
The ruling isn’t because of the proven health benefits of masking, though. It’s simply because Oklahoma’s law limiting mask mandates in the classroom creates a separate set of rules for private and public schools. The judge said that’s unconstitutional.
Public school districts can now issue mask mandates, but Mai stressed there must be exemptions available. Gov. Kevin Stitt applauded Mai for including the importance of opt out provisions in her comments while explaining the ruling.
“Today's ruling on SB658 in Oklahoma District Court is a victory for parental choice, personal responsibility and the rule of law,” he tweeted after the hearing. “I have been clear from the beginning that parents should have the right to make decisions about the health and education of their children.”
Stitt and Attorney General John O’Connor previously blasted the tiny Northeast Oklahoma school district of Hulbert for enacting a mask mandate. In an interview with a Tulsa television station, O’Connor even said he had plans to sue the district.
COVID-19 has ravaged Oklahoma schools. At least 45 schools closed or pivoted to distance learning in August because of the virus.
The practical implications of the ruling are unclear. Before Wednesday, at least 10 traditional and charter public school districts already had issued mask mandates with opt out provisions.
Those masking requirements seem to be validated, and it’s unknown how many school districts that have so far been reluctant to mandate masks will do so.