Soldiering on: Communities and schools adapt as COVID-19 spread continues

FILE – Highland Park Elementary students Daniel and David Hernandez were prepared for their school day with the face masks required at Stillwater Public Schools and face shields. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that the part of Senate Bill 658, which stated local governing boards could only issue masking requirements if the governor had issued a state of emergency, was unconstitutional.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers went too far by adding a provision to Senate Bill 658 that stated local governing boards could only consider mask mandates if the governor had issued a current state of emergency for the area.

The court, though, opted to leave intact the bulk of Senate Bill 658, including controversial provisions that prohibit public schools, colleges and CareerTechs from implementing COVID-19 vaccination or vaccine passport requirements and barring local rules that require only unvaccinated students to be masked. They also left in place a requirement that any mask mandates be reconsidered at each regularly scheduled board meeting, and a provision that requires districts considering implementing a mask mandate to first consult with local county health department officials.

However, the court said state law prohibits one level of government from exercising the powers that belong to another, and legislators “usurped” the independence guaranteed to locally-elected school boards. The governor has neither constitutional or statutory authority over the operation of schools, the court found.

“A local district’s authority to protect its students under the statutes at issue is totally dependent on the governor declaring an emergency,” the court wrote in its opinion. “Without such a delegation the school district is powerless and it is denied local control.”

The ruling came more than a year after an Oklahoma County district judge issued a temporary injunction on the mask mandate prohibition on the grounds that the law singled out students in public school while excluding those attending private schools.

In August 2021, a group of doctors and parents sued the Legislature and the governor over the law. Supporters said it protects parental choice by banning public schools, colleges, universities and technical programs from mandating masks for unvaccinated students unless Gov. Kevin Stitt declared a state of emergency. Critics said it prevented local school districts from issuing mask mandates aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, particularly among students who were not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

“We are pleased the Oklahoma Supreme Court sided with local control and upheld the ability of schools to protect their students and staff,” said Dr. David Holden, Oklahoma State Medical Association president, in a statement. The group was among those challenging the constitutionality of the law.

Holden said they’re reviewing the ruling and discussing any next steps with other plaintiffs.

State Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, the Senate author, said he was also reviewing the ruling to see if any additional legislation might be needed.

He said while he’s not aware of any remaining school mask mandates, the Legislature may need to reconsider the issue so that children are protected next time “and they’re aren’t used as some kind of political pawns like they were this time.”

“That’s not correct. It’s not healthy,” Standridge added. “The studies show clearly now that the medical device should be forced on children only with the approval of their parents.”

Still, he said he wasn’t completely surprised the court would object to the delegating of such authority to the governor given that the state Legislature clearly has authority over the public education system.

State Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, the House author, said the most important provisions of the law remain intact including COVID-19 vaccine disclosure exemptions and what he viewed as the most important part – the requirement that districts be transparent about masking requirements and provide parents the ability to give feedback about it at every regularly scheduled board meeting.

“I was certainly very glad that all of that stayed in there,” West said.

He said in Oklahoma, districts had big meetings to discuss mandates, would implement them and provide no updates until they decided to end it.

“One of my personal primary objectives was to ensure that the parents that want to have a voice in it had a platform to have that voice,” West said.

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