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Oklahoma Supreme Court rules school masking requirements don't need governor approval

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Oklahoma’s Supreme Court ruled a ban on mask mandates in schools that relies on action by the state’s governor is unconstitutional.

At issue was Senate Bill 658. The law passed in 2021 does a lot of things, but perhaps the most controversial was a ban on school boards enacting mask mandates unless the governor declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It was that controversial piece that was overturned in a 23-page ruling Tuesday.

The Supreme Court opinion written by Associate Justice Yvonne Krauger says the Oklahoma constitution makes clear that local governments must retain a degree of autonomy from higher branches of government.

“Local control of schools is usurped by requiring the Governor to exercise executive authority to declare a state of emergency,” Krauger wrote. “The statutes remove the school board’s authority to act independently and exercise the authority granted to school boards and it grants that authority to the Governor – who has neither constitutional nor statutory authority over the operation of schools.”

However, the court upheld much of the 2021 law that bars school boards from taking actions to mitigate COVID-19 at the local level.

Other pieces of the law remain intact, including the parts that:

  • Prohibit any education institution in Oklahoma to require a COVID-19 vaccine or vaccine passport to enroll or attend.
  • Prohibit mask mandates for unvaccinated students.
  • Require schools to post on their website vaccine options for parents.
  • Require school boards to vote on any medical device mandates, including masks, at each board meeting.
  • Require any mandate to be specific on which types of masks and the exact purpose they are being mandated.
  • Require school boards to consult with their local county health department before implementing any medical device or mask mandate.

It’s unclear what the ruling does to change the reality on the ground. An injunction filed last year allowed school districts to enact mask mandates that allow opt-out provisions. However, few Oklahoma school districts took that action and masking mandates are practically unheard of across the country.

StateImpact reached out to Gov. Kevin Stitt's office for comment about the ruling.

While Democrat Joy Hofmeister was being praised by the Biden administration for backing a plan that would have closed schools across the state for nearly 2 years, Gov. Stitt was pushing to keep schools open and has never supported statewide mandates or lockdowns," a spokeswoman for Stitt's office wrote.

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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