Oklahoma Dept. of Education to officially receive civil rights investigation following compliance of mask mandate prohibition law

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In this Aug. 17, 2021, file photo, wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students line up to enter school for the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas

FILE – In this Aug. 17, 2021, file photo, wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, elementary school students line up to enter school for the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is officially opening an investigation into possible violations by the Oklahoma State Department of Education through their compliance to the mask mandate prohibition law passed by Gov. Stitt back in May.

Specifically, OCR will examine whether, in light of Oklahoma’s prohibition on local school districts and schools from requiring the use of masks on school property and during in-person school-sponsored activities, the Oklahoma State Department of Education may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the individual educational needs of students with disabilities or otherwise enabling discrimination based on disability in violation of Section 504 and Title II. In this investigation, particular attention will be given to whether the Oklahoma State Department of Education may be preventing schools from making individualized assessments about mask use so that students with disabilities can attend school and participate in school activities in person, consistent with their right to receive a free appropriate public education and to be free from discrimination based on their disability.

In May, Governor Kevin Stitt signed Senate Bill 658preventing schools from mandating masks for unless the state undergoes another State of Emergency.

Time and again, Stitt says he has no intention of reinstating an emergency declaration or reversing SB 658.

“This is about personal responsibility. This is about freedoms,” said Gov. Stitt.

“It is unclear whether this prohibition remains in place even when the school or district determines, given the COVID-19 transmission rates in the surrounding area, that a mask requirement is necessary to protect students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” said the investigation letter. “In light of these circumstances, OCR is concerned that Oklahoma’s restriction on schools and school districts from putting masking requirements in place may be preventing schools in Oklahoma from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”

Oklahoma was one of six states that got a letter from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona earlier this month warning of civil rights probes. 

“We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” President Joe Biden said.

After that letter, 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.”

But over the weekend, Hofmeister called for abolition, tweeting in part, “…I want to see [SB 658] stricken in court so schools can fulfill their legal duty to protect and provide all students an opportunity to learn more safely in-person w/ #DeltaVariant…”

Several school districts in Oklahoma have chosen to put mask mandates in place despite the law.

Although Stitt’s response to these districts’ orders has been varied, his administration has stood by protecting students’ and parents’ rights to wear a mask or not.

The U.S. Dept. of Education can issue a range of sanctions up to a total loss of federal education funding in cases of civil rights violations.

State Supt. Hofmeister sent the following statement:

“Regrettably, we are not surprised by this civil rights investigation spurred by passage of a state law prohibiting mask requirements in Oklahoma public schools. That law, Senate Bill 658, is preventing schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and provide all students the opportunity to learn more safely in-person. We will fully cooperate with USDE.”

Later on Monday, the Oklahoma Education Association responded:

“This is a serious allegation. An investigation by the Office of Civil Rights is not a partisan skirmish to be dismissed. Our students’ safety and education should be everyone’s top priority.

Our kids need to be in school. The best way to do that safely is by allowing local school boards to establish the safety protocols needed to keep students safe and schools open to in person learning.  SB 658 has handcuffed our locally elected school boards from doing what’s best for their communities. Our leaders have put our most vulnerable students at risk, and now their critical federal funding is in jeopardy, too.”

KATHERINE BISHOP, OEA PRESIDENT

Governor Stitt’s office sent KFOR this response from the Communication’s Director late Monday evening.

Until every American citizen is safely out of Afghanistan, President Biden shouldn’t spend a single second harassing states like Oklahoma for protecting parents’ rights to make health decisions for their kids.”

CARLY ATCHISON, GOV. KEVIN STITT COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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