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Capitol Insider: Mask Mandates And SB 658 Dominate Back To School Planning

Little girl reading a picture book and wearing a mask
Kelly Sikkema

As classes begin across the state, the impact of the law created by Senate Bill 658 is forcing increased pressure on the governor and Oklahoma legislature.


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. And Shawn, we thought we might talk about something besides the pandemic this time, but there is so much happening we have to go there. Pressure is mounting on the governor and legislature from many directions to repeal or reverse the law created by Senate Bill 658 that largely prohibits mask mandates in public education. Schools, parents and medical professionals have pushed back against the law and now the federal government is, too.

Shawn Ashley: That's right. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, at the urging of President Joe Biden, sent a letter Wednesday to Governor Kevin Stitt as well as several other governors, effectively urging those states to reconsider their prohibitions on mask mandates. In the case of Oklahoma, the letter reminds state officials that additional federal funding was provided to schools with the requirement that schools adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction. The letter notes that U.S. Department of Education safety recommendations include universal and correct wearing of masks, which of course is prohibited by Senate Bill 658, except in certain circumstances. Cardona pledged the department will continue to closely review and monitor whether Oklahoma is meeting all its federal fiscal requirements.

Dick Pryor: Santa Fe South Charter Schools and Oklahoma City Public Schools have announced mask mandates. Governor Kevin Stitt said he appreciated their decisions for allowing opt outs. But the governor and new attorney general John O'Connor blasted tiny Hulbert Public Schools in Cherokee County for enacting a mask mandate with the approval of its school board. In a statement, O'Connor said of Hulbert, and I quote, “schools should not be actively trying to undermine our constitutional structure of government by violating duly enacted state law.” How is Hulbert different?

Shawn Ashley: Well, I think it's different in two ways. First of all, as you noted, Hulbert’s Board of Education voted to implement the mask mandate and that violates the law created by Senate Bill 658. The mask mandates implemented at Santa Fe South and Oklahoma City public schools were put in place by their superintendents who are not prohibited by the law from doing so, as Oklahoma City Public School Superintendent Sean McDaniel pointed out August 13th. Secondly, Hulbert’s mask mandate has a limited opt out provision. Most of the students who opt out of Hulbert’s mask mandate will be required to attend school virtually rather than in person.

Dick Pryor: Shawn, Oklahoma is a local control state in public education. How do Republican lawmakers who exclusively passed SB 658 square that?

Shawn Ashley: Well, when the bill was considered on the Senate and House floors in May, legislative Democrats asked that very same question. And what they were told was that the local school boards were ignoring the concerns of those who had elected them, specifically those who opposed mask mandates. School boards, the Republican lawmakers argued, got it wrong and Senate Bill 658 was the way to right that wrong.

Dick Pryor: A group of Republican lawmakers is still trying to bring the legislature back for a special session to further prohibit coronavirus mitigation measures, including prohibiting vaccine mandates and proof of vaccination requirements while strengthening enforcement of Senate Bill 658. Where does the special session movement stand?

Shawn Ashley: Senator Jake Merrick told a crowd gathered at the state Capitol August 14th that he and other legislators already had drafted bills for consideration during a special session. Merrick said his bill would prohibit workplace vaccination requirements. He and other speakers at that rally urged those in attendance to contact their legislators and contact the governor and urge them to call for that special session. For the legislature to call itself back two-thirds of each chamber - 68 house members and 32 senators - would have to join the call. But what I'm hearing is that the proponents of that special session are far short of those numbers currently.

Dick Pryor: Much of this conflict is caused by the governor's stance on coronavirus mitigation, including his support for SB 658, which he signed, and refusal to issue a state emergency order. Is there anything the administration is looking at that would cause them to reevaluate that position?

Shawn Ashley: We really don't know. Stitt has not held a COVID-related press conference since late March when he received his COVID-19 vaccination. When he announced May 3rd, he was ending the COVID-19 state of emergency he did so in a video sent to the media. He did take some COVID-related questions July 23rd when he announced the appointment of John O'Connor as the new attorney general. But it was there that he said, “I'm not planning on declaring an emergency again. This is about personal responsibility.”

Dick Pryor: All right, thanks for the perspective, 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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