OKLAHOMA CITY — Pressure to implement a statewide mask mandate for public schools is growing on the Oklahoma Board of Education as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen.
“We cannot have some silly political agenda that continues to run its course continue to endanger people who live in this state,” said Joe Dorman, CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.
In July, a deeply divided school board refused to mandate statewide safety requirements, including mask mandates, for districts. Saying they supported local control rather than state mandates, the board voted 4-3 against requiring face coverings in schools that are experiencing community spread of COVID-19. The state superintendent of public instruction — a Republican — voted for a mandate.
Currently, about 20% of school districts have refused to adopt a masking policy, Dorman said. Other districts have implemented rules that only require masks be worn on school buses.
A coalition of medical professionals, youth advocates and educators are pressing the board to reconsider its vote. They had hoped the board would take up the matter again when it next meets Thursday, but another vote is not on the agenda.
“We’ve got to see a uniform policy put in place,” Dorman said.
Dorman’s group recently launched a public salvo at the appointed board, which governs public schools. It posted billboards statewide calling for a new vote to pass a statewide in-school mask policy. The billboards feature pictures of all the board members and publicly called out the four who voted no on the mandate earlier this year.
Dorman said though the billboard campaign ended Tuesday due to a lack of funding, the coalition will continue to hammer the message home on social media. He noted that winter extracurricular activities like basketball and academic bowls are at risk if schools and communities can’t get skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths under control.
“We’re playing Russian roulette with the lives of Oklahomans by not wearing masks,” Dorman said.
Dr. Dwight Sublett, a Stillwater pediatrician and president of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said if everyone is compliant with masking, it will reduce the level of COVID-19 transmission by 70% to 80%.
“Yes, we’re playing Russian roulette here, but we can increase our odds of not passing the disease,” he said. “We’ve got to get past the point in this state about personal responsibility. It’s not working. It’s got to be a mandate. A mandate is the only way to go.”
Wes Glinsmann, executive director of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, said his group would love to see a statewide public school mask mandate issued by the State Board of Education. In the meantime, though, they’ve shifted their focus to local school boards.
“It’s frustrating, the political pushback we’re getting on something that should be common sense when protecting our citizens,” he said.
Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said two of the state’s largest districts — Oklahoma City and Tulsa — are returning to in-person instruction.
“We have teachers, support professionals and administrators who are beside themselves with worry,” she said. “We’re just a state divided on going back to school versus being virtual, but we do know that mask mandates work.”
She said educators are afraid to speak up in districts that don’t have mask mandates because the issue has become so politicized.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.