OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – President Joe Biden’s administration criticized Gov. Kevin Stitt for signing a law that prohibits school boards from implementing face mask mandates.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cadona sent a stern letter to Stitt as Biden criticized Oklahoma and five other states for making COVID-19 a political issue.
Stitt signed Senate Bill 658 on May 28, prohibiting Oklahoma schools boards from requiring students and staff to a wear a face mask unless he were to declare a sate of emergency.
Biden issued a memo, directing Cardona to use “all available tools” to ensure children are protected from COVID-19 in schools. This comes as COVID’s highly contagious Delta variant continues its rapid spread across Oklahoma and throughout the nation.
Cardona addressed both Stitt and State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, saying Oklahoma has taken actions that “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.”
He then goes on to say the Department of Education “will continue to closely to review and monitor whether Oklahoma is meeting all of its federal fiscal requirements.”
Cardona told Stitt and Hofmeister that his department will pay the salaries of educators if the state stops their paychecks, and he warned that the Department of Ed can investigate state educational agencies.
Stitt issued the following statement to KFOR in response to Biden’s criticism of his actions regarding COVID-19 in schools:
“Oklahomans overwhelmingly believe parents should make decisions about their kids, not the government. The fact that President Biden is focused on telling Oklahomans how to parent their kids while he turns his back on the American citizens trapped by terrorists in Afghanistan is another example in his pattern of poor judgment.”GOV. KEVIN STITT
Hofmeister said she supports COVID safety measures in schools, but will not defy SB 658.
“I think there’s a way to actually find balance,” Hofmeister said. “What we have seen in Oklahoma is our district leaders who have said we’re going to make a requirement that our students and staff wear masks but there is certainly still that opportunity for parents with their parental opt out process, which is already in place with certain vaccines, and that can be utilized.”
School districts are starting to implement face mask mandates despite the law that forbids such action.
Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Sean McDaniel announced a face mask mandate for students and staff, last week, to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. McDaniel said the mandate is not in violation of state law because he enacted it, not the district’s school board.
Hulbert Public Schools officials announced Thursday that their district is now requiring face masks. The decision comes after Hulbert middle and high school students moved to distance learning through Thursday, Aug. 19, because of a growing number of students having to quarantine.
Both Stitt and Oklahoma and Attorney General John O’Connor criticized the Hulbert School Board’s decision.
“It is disappointing that one school district has chosen to openly violate a state law that was supported by 80 percent of the Legislature. The goal of SB658 was to ensure every student in Oklahoma could go to school in person and parents retained the fundamental right to make health care decisions for their children. To be clear, no parent is banned from sending their child to school with a mask and no school may mandate masks or vaccines. I will always stand up for parents’ right to decide what is best for their child,” Stitt said.
“We are vigorously defending SB658 in court because it is plainly constitutional and helps protect the choices of students and parents. Under the new law, public school boards cannot implement a mask mandate, unless certain conditions are met, including that the school district be in an area under a current state of emergency declared by the Governor. Under our constitution, the Legislature gets to set the policy of the state—especially on controversial issues like this—and schools should not be actively trying to undermine our constitutional structure of government by violating duly-enacted state law,” O’Connor said.
The Oklahoma State Medical Association and a group of parents filed a lawsuit in the District Court of Oklahoma County last week, asking the court to declare SB 658 a violation of the Oklahoma Constitution.