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Capitol Insider: Oklahoma Schools, Parents, Medical Professionals Defy State COVID-19 Law


As schools open and the coronavirus Delta variant surges across the United States, educators, parents and doctors are fighting back against state laws restricting health and safety requirements in schools.


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director, Shawn Ashley. Shawn, there have been remarkable and rapid developments in the last several days as classes are starting across the nation. While the COVID Delta variant surges, governors and legislatures who have prohibited mask mandates are being defied and sued. And that's happened in Oklahoma. The superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools has announced masks will be required and the Oklahoma State Medical Association and a group of parents have filed a lawsuit to overturn a new state law. What's the basis for the lawsuit?

Shawn Ashley: Some of the bases for this lawsuit will be familiar to listeners who've heard us talk about challenges to legislation before. The plaintiffs claim it's a special law, that it violates the Oklahoma Constitution’s single subject rule and that it violates students’ due process rights. But perhaps the most interesting argument is the last one - that the new law violates Oklahoma children's right to a free education in a safe environment. Now, remember, Oklahoma is a compulsory education state. And if Senate Bill 658 is in force, the lawsuit argues, children will be deprived of the liberty not to have the government endanger or jeopardize their health. The suit adds there is no rational basis for depriving them of the opportunity to learn in a classroom where feasible mitigation measures are used, the same measures that are prohibited by Senate Bill 658.

Dick Pryor: Those are arguments that we are also seeing in litigation in other states. And the pushback from school administrators indicates a new dynamic may be developing in the governing process.

Shawn Ashley: That certainly seems to be the case. On Friday morning, Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel announced that he was implementing a mask mandate for Oklahoma City Public Schools. That distinction - that he was doing it - is important. Senate Bill 658 prohibits school boards from adopting mask mandates except under certain conditions, McDaniel noted in his message on the district's website while Senate Bill 658 prohibits school boards from mandating the wearing of a mask, the law does not prohibit the superintendent and district administration from requiring the wearing of masks by our students, staff and visitors. The message is similar to one shared by Santa Fe South Charter Schools Superintendent Chris Brewster, who announced on Wednesday he was implementing a mandate for his district. Brewster wrote in his message to parents, “I have carefully considered the ramifications of both requiring mass and not requiring them. I am aware that I am personally responsible for either decision.”

Dick Pryor: This is a fast-moving story that changes by the hour. State Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye is strongly urging more people to get vaccinated, and vaccination rates are up in Oklahoma. But, there is also a group of legislators seeking a special session to oppose COVID health and safety measures. What do they want to do?

Shawn Ashley: The lawmakers would like to address three issues. One is the noncompliance with Senate Bill 658. They also want to prohibit workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandates and also consider legislation related to so-called vaccine passports, commonly known as immunization records.

Dick Pryor: What would it take for that special session to happen?

Shawn Ashley: They would need to gather signatures from two thirds of the members of each chamber - 68 in the House and 32 in the Senate. And remember, Republicans hold supermajorities in both chambers. They do not need Democratic lawmakers’ signatures. They just need to get enough of their own caucuses to go along with the plan.

Dick Pryor: One other quick note, Shawn, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals issued a ruling that limits the application of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma. What is the upshot of the Court of Criminal Appeals ruling?

Shawn Ashley: In simplest terms, the court said it would no longer apply the McGirt decision retroactively to convictions that are final. With a few narrow exceptions. McGirt, of course, said the federal government, not the state, must prosecute certain crimes involving Native Americans committed on Indian land. The court has thrown out a number of convictions as a result of that decision, including some that were final. The court noted in its decision Thursday that the issue of retroactivity, specifically in light of another federal appeals court decision on the issue, had not been put before them in McGirt-related cases, resulting in this new decision.

Dick Pryor: And that is a story that continues to evolve. Thanks, Shawn.

Shawn Ashley: You're very welcome.

Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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