OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — Sean McDaniel, the superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, instituted a mask requirement Friday for all students and staff regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.
Oklahoma City Public Schools is the largest traditional public school district in Oklahoma.
The move comes on the heels of a similar decision announced Wednesday (and the first in the state) by Chris Brewster, founder, and superintendent of Santa Fe South charter schools in Oklahoma City and sponsored by Oklahoma City Community College.
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At least two Republican legislators issued statements later the same day referring to McDaniel’s move as “a blatant violation of state law” and that the decision by superintendents to require masks “borders on anarchy.”
House Bill 658 passed in the last legislative session by Republican legislators prohibits public school boards of education from mandating masks or vaccines but does not restrict the superintendent. Governor Kevin Stitt signed the bill into law.
Stitt’s office issued a statement that they did not believe the decision was a problem because it gives parents the choice of what to do.
Far from being a strict edict, the finer points of the new rule give generous opt-out pathways for parents “due to medical or religious or strong personal reasons.”
McDaniel told the news media in a virtual news conference call Friday that it is the district’s position that HB 658 does not prohibit superintendents from requiring masks, only the district boards of education.
The OKCPS Board of Education did not directly make the decision to require masks. McDaniel was careful to say that he was instituting the requirement because, “As the superintendent, I am ultimately responsible for the safety, health and welfare of each and every one of our students and our staff.”
In the last OKCPS Board of Education meeting board members gave McDaniel the authority to make decisions as he sees the need concerning the district’s response to the quickly-changing COVID crisis in Oklahoma where the D variant is surging among those who are still unvaccinated.
Wearing masks* will be expected for all employees who have not already been vaccinated and will be referred to Human Resources if they have medical reasons for not being vaccinated.
Vaccinations will be available to students on campus who have their parents’ permission. McDaniel promised more information on vaccination efforts next week.
Some of the most passionate House Republican proponents of the bill issued strong, accusatory reactions to mostly McDaniel but also Santa Fe South’s Brewster.
Rep. Kevin West of Moore issued a strong statement only against McDaniel employing often-used anti-public-school boilerplate referring to democratically-elected local school board actions as “GOVERNMENT control” and referred to parental decisions as “the ultimate local control.”
West argued that in the case of OKCPS, the board could not “delegate power that is prohibited against them by law.” But, the clearance to make decisions to help the district respond to the fluid COVID threat was not established in the last school board meeting.
Superintendents are, in fact, responsible for the safety of all students and staff in all circumstances as McDaniel said.
West argued that “The exemptions offered to students to not wear a mask are basically forcing parents to ask permission to follow the law.” In fact, the rule does not require parents to ask permission but simply notify the district of their reasons.
However, in the case of Santa Fe South, Brewster was very clear that the mask mandate and expectation to get vaccinated was “not optional” unless there was documentation from a physician.
West, who is a charter school proponent and strong conservative as is Brewster, remained entirely silent on Brewster’s decision.
But, Representative Sean Roberts, a Republican from Hominy, included in his criticism any superintendent who chooses to make mask requirements.
“I am disheartened to hear that public school systems across the state are choosing to not comply with state law,” Roberts said. “Public schools knowingly violating state law borders on anarchy, and we must hold any government entity that knowingly and willfully violates state law accountable.”
“I am encouraged to see the Governor step out of the way of administrators attempting to protect their students and staff,” wrote House Minority Leader and Democrat Emily Virgin in a news release later in the day Friday.
She said that House Democrats believe that local school boards, selected by the voters of the district are best suited to make decisions about the welfare of the students.
UPDATES – In the original version of this report we said that Santa Fe South is sponsored by Rose State College, which was an error. The school is sponsored by Oklahoma City Community College.
*In the original version of this story we said that vaccinations are expected of all employees which is not the case. Masks will be expected and if there is a medical reason for not wearing them, employees can contact Human Resources to “request accommodations on the basis of disability.”
Last Updated August 15, 2021, 8:57 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor