© 2021 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Help us answer phones and take pledges during our upcoming membership drive on Dec 6th & 7th. Sign up here!

Even with green light, few Oklahoma schools are requiring masks

Students-on-playground-1920x1280.jpg
Positive Tomorrows
A group of students play on the playground of Positive Tomorrows, Oklahoma's only school for students experiencing homelessness.

More than 60 private schools and public school districts required their students to mask up this fall.

That’s a far cry from the hundreds of public school districts that had mask mandates last school year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Oklahoma’s State Department of Education recommend students mask in classrooms. But political and legal realities have made it incredibly difficult for schools to require them.

Earlier this year, Oklahoma’s legislature passed Senate Bill 658. It appeared that with vaccines for adults and the promise of one for children coming soon, the legislation would have little effect. But, when Gov. Kevin Stitt lifted a state of emergency, it closed the door on potential masking requirements in schools. This created backlash. A group of doctors, parents and students sued the state over the bill. There’s currently an injunction in place that says schools can require masks, as long as they let students opt out. Some schools took advantage, but many more continued to simply encourage mask wearing.

So that leaves plenty of questions to close 2021 and open the new school year. And StateImpact is going to try to answer them:

How bad has COVID-19 been in Oklahoma schools?

Oklahoma state officials probably have a decent idea, but the public has yet to get a full picture.

In fall 2020, StateImpact made an award-winning effort to track cases of the coronavirus in a vast majority of Oklahoma schools. This fall, at least 50 schools had to temporarily pivot to distance learning or shut down because of COVID-19.

For individuals, each quarantine and positive test inflicted trauma on a student or school staff member. It’s created fear among parents and caused record low enrollment in early grades, delaying critical development for students.

But the pandemic’s overall impact is still to be determined. And we likely won’t know how much it affected children for years.

Where is the SB 658 case now?

In September, Oklahoma County District Court Judge Natalie Mai issued a temporary injunction that allowed public schools to mandate masks as long as they offered an opt out provision. Mai said she did that because private schools were allowed to issue mask mandates, and private and public schools should be treated equally under the law.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor’s office immediately appealed that decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court and asked for the injunction to be lifted. Several things could happen from here, ranging from a lifting of the injunction to the supreme court declaring the law unconstitutional. But regardless, the legal battle is likely to drag into 2022.

How many schools masked up amid the injunction?

A StateImpact review of Oklahoma schools’ masking policies showed that at least 36 of the state’s more than 500 public school districts issued masking rules allowed under the injunction. Many of those were charter districts located in Oklahoma City.

Additionally, 24 private schools in Oklahoma issued mask mandates. They weren’t required to have an opt out provision for students.

How many schools are masking up now?

Many of the mask requirements issued earlier this year remain in effect. A StateImpact review found three private schools and eight public school districts had weakened their masking rules since they were issued earlier this year.

The schools that had masking rules — the public schools all had opt out provisions — but have since lifted them to a degree include:

  • Mid-Del Public Schools
  • Keys Public Schools
  • Tulsa Public Schools
  • McAlester Public Schools
  • Briggs Public School
  • Jenks Public Schools
  • Noble Public Schools
  • Burns Flat-Dill City Public Schools
  • Riverfield Country Day School in Tulsa
  • Westminster School in Oklahoma City
  • Holland Hall in Oklahoma City

What affect have the mask mandates had?

In urban districts and in charter schools, the mask requirements have led to quite a bit more masking.

In rural and suburban settings, they haven’t had as big of an impact. In rural Stilwell Public Schools for example, superintendent Geri Gilstrap told StateImpact that a majority of the district’s students had opted out of a masking requirement.

In suburban districts like Edmond and Jenks, thousands of students opted out of mask requirements.

Nobody has really studied the full impact of masking in Oklahoma schools. But at least one CDC study says students in schools without universal masking are 3.5 times more likely to catch the coronavirus.

What will school look like during the spring 2022 semester?

This semester might be the clearest since the pandemic began. It will likely be a continuation of this fall. Mitigation strategies will continue to be necessary, and closures and absences will be common.

With an increase in vaccinations, there should be fewer cases of the virus. Right now, only about 20% of people under the age of 18 have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, though.

If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that the only thing that can truly be expected is the unexpected.

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