The state’s highest court struck down the governor’s ban against school mask mandates in an opinion issued Tuesday.
The ruling in favor of doctors and parents who challenged a state law that, at one point, effectively, blocked masking requirements in public schools.
The court decided a crucial provision in State Senate Bill 658 that made school mask mandates contingent on the governor declaring a state of emergency is “impermissible” and denies school districts local control.
The decision means public schools wouldn’t have to wait for a governor’s emergency order to require face coverings, though few schools still mandate them.
“We are pleased the Oklahoma Supreme Court sided with local control and upheld the ability of schools to protect their students and staff,” said Oklahoma Medical Association president Dr. David Holden.
The OMA sued to overturn the law, which had been signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt.
“We are currently reviewing the ruling and will discuss any next steps with the other plaintiffs,” Dr. Holden commented.
Gov. Stitt said repeatedly he would not declare another state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic.
The court said the law acted as a “state-wide prohibition for masks for public schools.”
“Local control of schools is usurped by requiring the governor to exercise executive authority to declare a state of emergency,” Justice Yvonne Kauger wrote in the court’s majority opinion.
The law took effect July 1, 2021.
Shortly afterward, the highly transmissible delta variant ratcheted up cases across the state only to be followed by an even more contagious omicron variant later that winter.
Some school districts, including the Oklahoma City Public School District and the Santa Fe South Charter Schools, began requiring masks despite the law, as COVID-19 infections quickly became overwhelming among students and teachers.
Gov. Stitt was severely criticized by federal officials for his handling of the pandemic crisis.
The OMA and four mothers of public school students filed a lawsuit in August of last year in
Oklahoma County District Court to challenge State SB 658, contending the law denied children a safe learning environment and is unconstitutional, since it applied only to public schools.
While public schools were prohibited from mandating masks, private schools freely required them.
“This is not a political stance; it is about public health and common sense,” then-OMA president Dr. Mary Clarke said.
“If schools can send students home for a lice infection, they should have the latitude and ability to issue a mask mandate.”
Oklahoma County District Judge Natalie Mai put a temporary stop to the bill, allowing public schools to issue mask mandates as long as parents had the choice to opt out their children from the requirement.
“Parental choice is extremely important to the Legislature,” Judge Mai said in a court hearing. “Any requirement whatsoever must have that option available to the parent.”
Attorney General John O’Connor appealed Mai’s ruling and the Oklahoma Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
State Rep. Kevin West (Rep., Moore), an author the law, said on Tuesday he wouldn’t take issue if a school district implemented a mask mandate without the governor first giving an emergency order.