OKLAHOMA CITY — State leaders are doubling down on a controversial school masking ban despite a warning from the country’s highest education official that it could jeopardize federal funding, and despite a plea from a high-profile Oklahoma business owner to rescind it.
The two Aug. 18 letters come as pressure grows on lawmakers to repeal Senate Bill 658, which among other things prohibits school boards from requiring students to wear masks as they return back to in-person instruction.
In one letter, Miguel Cardona, U.S. secretary of education, warned Gov. Kevin Stitt and state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister that his agency plans to closely review and monitor whether Oklahoma is meeting all of its federal fiscal requirements in order to receive federal coronavirus aid.
In order for elementary and secondary schools to receive federal aid, districts must “adopt a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction and continuity of services,” he said.
He wrote that the U.S. Department of Education is concerned that Senate Bill 658 could limit the ability of Oklahoma schools to adopt the required plan because the safety recommendations include “universal and correct wearing of masks.”
“Oklahoma’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) puts these goals at risk and may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by federal law,” Cardona wrote.
He said his agency stands with districts that have adopted masking policies in spite of Oklahoma’s new law.
Then in a separate open letter, Chad Richison, founder and CEO of Paycom, said that Oklahomans could be taking preventative steps to save lives like wearing masks, but that SB 658, signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt, took authority away from education leaders to enact “common-sense policies like requiring masks to be worn.”
“It is my hope that our state leadership will reverse this position and allow them to make decisions based on safety, science and organizational continuity,” he said. “Our state leader has a duty to care and a duty to act in a way that protects Oklahomans, health care workers and institutions by allowing mask requirements in areas where they are necessary to slow the spread.”
Carly Atchison, a spokeswoman for Stitt, said Friday that SB 658 passed with 80% support of the Legislature, and the governor plans to enforce the law.
“As long as kids have an option for five days a week in person and as long as parents have choice, the governor has no issue,” she said. “School districts can use magic words all they want, but as soon as they take away choices from parents, that’s when they’re violating the law.”
She said Stitt believes Cardona’s letter “is a vain threat,” and said he’ll push back against what he considers federal overreach.
Rob Standridge, R-Norman, the Senate author of the mask law, said he’s glad Oklahoma’s executive branch is defending the measure.
He said Friday that he believes the letter is an attempt to pressure him and his colleagues to roll back SB 658. However, he said he’s not worried that doubling down on the masking ban could potentially cost the state millions in federal coronavirus relief funding earmarked for schools.
“I don’t believe money is more important than the health of patients, children and their parents,” Standridge said.
He also said the politics of the issue have gotten out of control, and the power needs to be given back to the parents to make the best decision for the children.
Ryan Walters, Oklahoma’s secretary of education, also backed the mask ban in a tweet Friday.
“I trust parents, not President Biden, who wants to dictate from Washington how Oklahoma parents protect their kids,” he said. “Our state law is clear: Parents need to be given a choice for whether their child wears a mask in school.”
Hofmeister, a Republican, though said that former U.S. President Ronald Reagan was right that those closest to the problem are ones best suited to address it.
“School districts deserve the autonomy to enact policies that protect our schoolchildren and staff from COVID exposure and infection,” she said. “For schools to remain open for in-person instruction, the to-do list is clear: Get vaccinated and wear a mask.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.