Oklahoma state school board doesn't budge on mask policy
Although campaigns for statewide mask policies have gained steam, state education officials again on Thursday declined to require face coverings in Oklahoma public schools.
The Oklahoma State Board of Education passed a resolution during a virtual meeting Thursday to restate its support of mask wearing to prevent spread of COVID-19. But the board didn’t waver from its position against a statewide school mandate.
“How are we going to force individuals or districts to make sure that they mask up other than we’re going to challenge your accreditation if you don’t?” board member Estela Hernandez said. “I think that’s troubling.”
Another board member, Carlisha Williams-Bradley, questioned the necessity of the resolution and said it “seems performative.” The board approved similar statements twice before, neither of which put requirements on the books.
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Prior resolutions have expired, prompting another board vote.
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said it’s no secret she supports a statewide school mask mandate. Despite her urging for a mandatory policy, Hofmeister was outnumbered in a previous vote on school COVID-19 precautions.
The board voted 4-3 on July 23 to recommend, but not require, a package of safety measures for schools in the pandemic. That included a proposal to require districts to enforce a mask mandate if their home county reached the Yellow Level of COVID-19 spread, defined as 1.43 cases per 100,000 people.
After the vote, more than a third of Oklahoma school districts started the academic year with no mandatory mask policy, despite all but three districts being in counties where the board would advise face coverings because of heightened community spread.
Recent campaigns have pushed for the board to reconsider its stance against requirements.
A group of prominent medical, child advocacy and education organizations in Oklahoma formed a coalition called Masks Are Saving Kids, or MASK, to campaign for a statewide school mandate.
Three doctors spoke to the board in public comment Thursday to support a mask policy. Dr. David Kendrick, of Tulsa, shared data from MyHealth Access Network, a non-profit that shares healthcare information in Oklahoma.
The network’s data shows 68% of hospital admissions over the past two months have come from cities without a mask mandate while 32% of patients have come from cities with a mandate.
Stillwater pediatrician Dr. Dwight Sublett said early studies have found children often show mild or no symptoms of COVID-19 but a school mask requirement could prevent students from spreading the virus to others who are more vulnerable.
Sublett is the president of the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“Our concern here is our teachers, our personnel, our administrators and everybody who comes in contact with (students),” Sublett said. “Not only at the school, but also their families.”
However, the board took a similar approach as Gov. Kevin Stitt. The governor has implored all Oklahomans to wear masks but has resisted requiring them, opting to encourage personal responsibility instead. Stitt appointed most of the state school board.
Board member Brian Bobek said the resolution puts an “exclamation point” behind its recommendations.
“It’s still up to these individual communities to find out what’s best for them,” Bobek said. “We’re leaving that freedom with them, but we’re just putting some focus and spotlight on it.”
The state’s largest teacher union, the Oklahoma Education Association, said the board’s stance shows a “complete lack of leadership” while cases and hospitalizations are spiking.
"The State Board of Education had another chance Thursday to stand up for children and their fellow Oklahomans who work in our schools with a statewide mask policy,” Priest said in a statement. “Once again, they passed the buck.”