OKLAHOMA CITY — As the school year begins, Republican lawmakers are facing criticism for linking a controversial school masking measure to the same emergency trigger that hospitals say they may need to deal with the pandemic.

Advocates say Senate Bill 658 protects parental choice by banning public schools, colleges, universities and technical programs from mandating masks for unvaccinated students — unless Gov. Kevin Stitt declares a state of emergency.

But overstretched hospitals, meanwhile, are clamoring for relief and increased regulatory flexibility through the “most expedient course” — whether that comes through an executive order or agency statutory authority.

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said it’s an “unfortunate consequence” that Republican lawmakers — whether they meant to or not — tied the trigger of Senate Bill 658 to the same relief mechanism that hospitals may ultimately need, meaning that if the governor grants hospitals what they need, it could lift the ban on mask mandates.

She said when the measure was being run in May, many Republicans seemed to think that the pandemic was over “and that this would be sort of a good talking point for them in re-election campaigns.”

“It doesn’t seem to me that they fully considered the consequences of tying an emergency declaration to something like this,” Virgin said. “It’s hard not to see these things being connected.”

Virgin said Stitt has “dug his heels in” on masking mandates and preempting local control.

“You may see the need for an emergency declaration for hospitals,” Virgin said. “(But) he’s probably very reluctant to issue that order because of the mask issue.”

Stitt’s office did not return an email seeking comment Wednesday about what role Senate Bill 658 was playing in his policymaking. He said Tuesday, though, that a state of emergency was not necessary.

Patti Davis, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, said hospitals don’t care what form that relief takes as long as it gets done. A state of emergency may not be necessary.

“This has nothing to do with a discussion about back to school,” Davis said. “Quite simply, our No. 1 concern right now is addressing the needs of our hospitals, and linking this to that bill is just not anything that is in our thoughts.”

But some lawmakers acknowledged that Stitt could face political blowback if he’s forced to issue a state of emergency that inadvertently reverses Senate Bill 658.

“The politics of this thing is insane,” said state Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, a pharmacist. “It’s been that way since the beginning of the disease. I’ve been a health professional for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything, much less a very serious illness like this being treated so politically. It’s unbelievable and irresponsible.”

Standridge, who authored Senate Bill 658, said he believes in local control, but it’s the Legislature’s responsibility to set guidelines and guardrails against political subdivisions like school boards.

He cited comments made Monday during a Norman board of education meeting. A board member, Linda Sexton, said she’d like to pursue legal avenues to defy the mask mandate and said if anyone needs to “flee to virtual school” it should be the maskless.

“It’s just not OK for kids to commit murder by coming to school without a mask, and when it comes down to it, it’s possible,” Sexton said.

She later apologized for the remark.

Standridge said, “They should not be mandating, controlling children.”

State Rep. Trish Ranson, D-Stillwater, said she thinks Stitt may be reluctant to issue a state of emergency because he thinks that it’s not yet needed, but also because it’s potentially going to generate anger from parents who don’t want their school boards to have the power to mandate masks.

“You’ve got the political issue of if he declares a health emergency, then we are just right back where we were last year, and all the parents are going to be up in arms,” she said.

But Ranson said parts of the state are rural, and they’re not yet feeling the urgency of increasing COVID-19 case numbers.

“I think that those voices are very much strong in the governor’s ear, and so there’s kind of a disconnect between the urban and rural,” Ranson said.

But ultimately, it all boils down “to the fact that the governor has declared that he is not going to do this,” she said. “And he is very much set in his ways, and I don’t know that he will declare a health emergency. However, I think he needs to.”

Ranson said two school districts in Texas are already defying a similar state policy there. Stitt needs to decide whether he wants Oklahoma to face the same pushback as well as lawsuits or if he wants to do something to mitigate that.

“That’s, I think, really at the heart of what the dilemma is right now,” Ranson said.

On Wednesday, Santa Fe Schools, a public charter school in south Oklahoma City, became the first Oklahoma school district to announce it planned to openly defy Senate Bill 658, by requiring teachers, students and staff to wear masks.

Tulsa Public Schools, meanwhile, was set to consider legal action challenging the new law.

State Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, the House author of Senate Bill 658, said he thinks Stitt could issue a state of emergency to help hospitals, while protecting parental masking choice in schools.

But West said it would largely hinge on how Stitt wrote that state of emergency.

He said he doesn’t think that the question of local mask requirements is necessarily linked to hospitals’ needs for more flexibility from the state. But he said it’s possible Stitt could be reluctant to issue a state of emergency for hospitals because of the political controversy over the measure.

“I feel like if he felt that the situation warranted the emergency that he would issue the emergency,” West said. “But he could potentially do something with an executive order in an emergency that would free things up for hospitals, but keep the parental control at the schools. I just don’t know for sure.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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