The U.S. Secretary of Education announced a civil rights investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education over concerns that state laws banning universal masking.
They said this violates the rights of students with disabilities who may be at higher risk of complications due to COVID.
In a letter sent to Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, civil rights investigators said they want to know if students with disabilities, who are at a higher risk for contracting COVID, are discriminated against by the state’s ban on mask mandates in schools.
"SB658 does have limitations and is preventing our schools from fulfilling their legal duty to protect and providing all children with the opportunity to learn in a more safer learning environment in person," Hofmeister said in response to the letter.
Senate Bill 658 passed in May and bans school boards from mandating masks.
She said in a tweet on Sunday she supports the move made by Oklahoma City Public Schools to have a district superintendent implement a mask requirement, with an opt-out, and said more schools “can and should” do the same.
Republican Sen. Nathan Dahm from Broken Arrow authored the bill.
“This doesn’t actually violate anyone’s civil rights, because if you look at it, a parent can still require their own child to wear a mask. This is just saying the government can’t be forcing this," he said.
The bill is already the subject of an ongoing lawsuit. On Wednesday, a judge could issue an injunction on SB 658 which stopped the bill from being enforced and allowed districts to mandate masks.
The Oklahoma attorney general is defending the bill in court.
In a statement, the attorney general's office’s spokesman Alex Gerszewski said,
“Our office is currently defending the state law in Oklahoma County. We have a hearing next week on the case and our attorneys are looking forward to making their arguments in the future. Once the case is fully litigated, we are sure that Oklahoma City Public Schools and other schools across the state will comply with the ruling—rather than lawlessly defy both the legislature and the courts."
Hofmeister issued warnings Sunday night that in-person learning for all students may be under threat if mandatory masking continues to be banned by state law.
“We have on our minds all our children, who are not yet eligible for a vaccine, who are going to school in many classrooms where they are unprotected, and we owe them more. Our kids deserve more,” Hofmeister said.
Several school districts updated their return-to-learn plans late last week to require mandatory quarantine periods if a child is exposed to a COVID-positive person.
OKCPS released data to News 9 which showed 133 students out of the district's 31,000 person student body have opted out of masking as of late last week.
That is less than 1% of the district's student body.