U.S. Department of Education opens civil rights investigation into Oklahoma, 5 other states on state’s preventing school mask mandates

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) — The U.S. Department of Education office of civil rights launched an investigation Monday into 5 states Monday, including Oklahoma to look into whether state’s preventing schools from mandating masks discriminates against students with disabilities by preventing them from safely going to class in person.

https://content.govdelivery.com/accounts/USED/bulletins/2eefc0d

In the investigation, the department is looking into possible violations by the state department of education through compliance of the law passed by Gov. Kevin Stitt back in May. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s news release, the investigation is also about whether schools may be prevented from meeting individual educational needs of students with disabilities.

“A lot of people and kids are opposed to this mask issue,” said Lisa Rsheidat, a woman with grandkids in a school that just put in a mask mandate due to a recent outbreak. “I don’t want to put my children’s life on the line or myself.”

Rsheidat’s grandkids attend Burns Flat-Dill City schools. The district just put in a mask mandate this week after a recent outbreak forced them to close their schools for all of last week. A letter to parents stated they had 12 total cases among students in their district as of August 23. There was also 23 percent of their district in quarantine due to close contact.

“I feel really frustrated,” Rsheidat said.

On August 29, another letter sent to parents told them the district was implementing a mask mandate with an opt out option.

“We’re seeing kids get admitted to the hospital with COVID-19,” said University of Oklahoma’s Chief COVID-19 Officer Dr. Dale Bratzler.

Bratzler said Monday Oklahoma saw 47 pediatric hospitalizations. Over the last 30 days, 93 kids under the age of 18 have been hospitalized. Bratzler also said there has been a huge jump in the seven-day average of cases. One week ago, the state was seeing about 2,100 cases on a seven-day average. Monday that number jumped to 2,800. Bratzler said he attributes that jump to schools reopening.

“There’s nothing other than schools reopening that I can attribute that to,” he said.

The news release from the U.S. Department of Education said that state’s barring schools from requiring masks prevents districts from “…implementing health and safety policies that they determine are necessary to protect students from exposure to COVID-19, including those with underlying medical conditions related to their disability.”

“These children are spreading it back to their communities,” Rsheidat said.

Governor Kevin Stitt’s office responded with the following written statement: “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.” – Kevin Stitt, Governor of the state of Oklahoma

CARLY ATCHISON, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS FOR GOV. KEVIN STITT

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister responded with the following written 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.”

JOY HOFMEISTER, OKLAHOMA STATE SUPERINTENDENT OF PUBLIC INSTRUCTION

“It’s really, really important that we do everything we can to encourage our kids to wear a mask in school,” Dr. Bratzler said.

The Oklahoma Education Association president Katherine Bishop issued a statement as well.

“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, Oklahoma Education Association President  

Katherine Bishop, Oklahoma Education Association President

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