An Oklahoma judge issued a temporary injunction against the state’s ban on school mask mandates Wednesday—but said schools must allow students to opt out of the requirement—becoming the latest in a string of states to have its school mask mandate ban struck down in court.
Oklahoma County Judge Natalie Mai said Wednesday her temporary injunction will go into effect next week when a written order is signed, and it will stay in place until another hearing takes place for a permanent decision on the mask order.
Mai ruled in favor of parents and the Oklahoma State Medical Association that sued to block Oklahoma Senate Bill 658, which expressly prohibits public school districts and other educational bodies from “implement[ing] a mask mandate for students who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.”
Mai predominantly took issue with the fact the legislation did not apply equally to both public and private schools—which have been free to implement their own mask mandates—and ruled while schools can now impose mask mandates, “any requirement whatsoever must have that option available to the parent” for them to opt their children out of the mandate.
Because the judge required an opt-out option, Oklahoma leadership actually applauded the ruling despite her siding against the state, and Gov. Kevin Stitt said Wednesday the decision is “a victory for parental choice, personal responsibility and the rule of law.”
Though Senate Bill 658 also imposes other restrictions on schools, like blocking them from mandating Covid-19 vaccinations, the ruling applies only to mask policies in K-12 schools.
Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister confirmed in a statement Wednesday the state department of education will not enforce the prohibition on school mask mandates due to the litigation.
“Today is a victory for families, the safeguarding of schoolchildren and their opportunity to learn in-person,” Hofmeister said. “The court’s striking of the mask mandate prohibition on SB 658 now enables schools to fulfill their duty to protect and ensure equal protection for all students, including those with disabilities and most vulnerable in our schools.”
10. That’s the number of states that have enacted some form of restriction or ban on school mask mandates, though not all are in effect. In addition to Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Iowa, Utah, South Carolina, Arizona, Arkansas, Tennessee and most recently Montana have blocked school mask orders.
Mai’s ruling follows other court orders in Arkansas and Florida that struck down those states’ prohibitions on school mask mandates, though Florida’s order is also not yet in effect until the judge signs a written order, which is expected imminently. Judges in Texas have also issued rulings that have struck down the state’s school mask mandate ban as it applies to certain counties and districts—but not statewide—prompting the state to pause its enforcement of the mask mandate ban as the litigation plays out. School mask mandate bans have become a major source of controversy as a new school year has started amid a Covid-19 surge linked to the delta variant, and some school districts in Oklahoma and across the country have revolted against the state policies and imposed mask mandates despite the state rules. States have responded by threatening retaliation against school districts that impose mask mandates, with Florida withholding state funding from districts equivalent to their school board members’ salaries and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey saying the state withhold federal funds from districts with mask orders.
What To Watch For
Lawsuits against school mask mandate bans are still playing out in every state with a ban in place except Montana, paving the way for other states’ rules to potentially get struck down as well. The legal debate over Florida’s mask mandate ban is also continuing even as it’s been struck down in court, as a spokesperson from the Florida Department of Education told Forbes Tuesday the department intends to immediately appeal the ruling, which will trigger an automatic stay that allows the state to continue to withhold school funding. The U.S. Department of Education has opened investigations into five states with school mask mandate bans in effect, including Oklahoma, which could result in those states potentially receiving sanctions or having their cases referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for prosecution.
Oklahoma school mask mandate ban blocked, exemptions a must (Associated Press)
Oklahoma’s School Mask Mandate Ban Temporarily Struck Down By Judge