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U.S. Department of Education Investigating Oklahoma For Civil Rights Violations Related To Masking Protocols

U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visits a classroom in March 2021.

The U.S. Department of Education announced Monday it’s investigating potential civil rights violations related to Oklahoma’s ban on mask mandates in schools.

The federal government is concerned Oklahoma’s masking ban could be discriminatory toward students with disabilities.

In a four page letter to Oklahoma officials, federal investigators put the state on notice. They said the state’s ban on mask mandates is making school exceedingly dangerous. And that move could prevent students with disabilities from safely attending school in person.

The vast majority of Oklahoma schools are in person so far this year. But a StateImpact database shows that more than 30 have had to close their doors or pivot to distance learning because of the coronavirus.

Mask mandates in schools are banned in Senate Bill 658 without a state of emergency declared by the governor. The measure was signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt earlier this year and he’s said repeatedly he won’t declare a state of emergency amid Oklahoma’s most recent coronavirus surge.

In a statement sent to StateImpact, Stitt spokeswoman Carly Atchison said, “Until every American citizen is safely out of Afghanistan, President Biden shouldn’t spend a single second harassing states like Oklahoma for protecting parents’ rights to make health decisions for their kids.”

Four other states - Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah - are under similar investigations.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a written statement. “The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”

This isn’t the first time Cardona has expressed displeasure with Oklahoma’s masking policies.

Earlier this month, he 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. The action also puts school districts’ access to federal American Rescue Plan money at risk. Schools are required to enact safety plans to receive those federal COVID-19 relief funds, and taking away masking weakens their safe learning plans.

He also expressed support for school districts that have gone forward with universal masking requirements like Oklahoma City Public Schools and Santa Fe South Public Charter School, despite the state law banning them.

Pressure toward SB 658 is mounting. Over the weekend, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister tweeted she supports an Oklahoma State Medical Association lawsuit attempting to overturn it.

“Regrettably, we are not surprised by this civil rights investigation spurred by passage of a state law prohibiting mask requirements in Oklahoma public schools," she said in a statement to StateImpact about the investigation. "That law, Senate Bill 658, is preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in-person. We will fully cooperate with USDE.”

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Robby Korth grew up in Ardmore, Oklahoma and Fayetteville, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Nebraska with a journalism degree.
StateImpact Oklahoma reports on education, health, environment, and the intersection of government and everyday Oklahomans. It's a reporting project and collaboration of KGOU, KOSU, KWGS and KCCU, with broadcasts heard on NPR Member stations.
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