The Oklahoman

School mask mandates ban put on hold

Temporary injunction placed on SB 658

- Nuria Martinez-Keel

Oklahoma’s controvers­ial ban on school mask mandates has been put on hold.

An Oklahoma County District Court judge on Wednesday imposed a temporary injunction on Senate Bill 658.

The state Education Department announced it will not enforce the school mask mandate prohibitio­n in light of the ruling.

District Judge Natalie Mai ruled in favor of the Oklahoma State Medical Associatio­n and a group of parents suing to overturn the bill. The judge granted the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary pause on the effects of the law.

SB 658, which took effect July 1, blocks public school boards from enacting a mask mandate unless the governor issues an emergency declaratio­n for the district’s locality.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has said repeatedly he will not make an emergency order, effectivel­y blocking public schools from requiring face coverings.

But, the bill had no effect on private K-12 schools, several of which have freely implemente­d mask requiremen­ts.

Mai said the bill’s inconsiste­nt applicatio­n to public and private schools was her greatest concern with the legislatio­n.

The judge echoed the wishes of the state Legislatur­e that parents make the final choice on their children’s mask wearing.

Mai instructed that any masking policy should have the option for families to opt out — a strategy first seen in Oklahoma City Public Schools and Santa Fe South Charter Schools.

“Parental choice is extremely important to the Legislatur­e,” Mai said during the court hearing. “Any requiremen­t whatsoever must have that option available to the parent.”

She said her ruling only impacts masking policies in K-12 schools, not to other parts of the law. SB 658 also prohibits K-12 schools and public and private colleges from requiring vaccinatio­ns, and it bars them from singling out unvaccinat­ed individual­s for vaccine and mask mandates.

Oklahoma Education Secretary Ryan Walters said Mai’s ruling reinforced the governor and Legislatur­e’s view that parents should have the choice to opt out of mask wearing. The governor called the ruling a “victory” in a social media post Wednesday.

“That, to us, was key to hear that from a judge and reaffirm the position that the governor and I and the state Legislatur­e has held,” Walters said.

The temporary injunction is expected to take effect Sept. 8 once a journal entry is filed following the ruling. Mai’s court order will remain until another hearing takes place for a judge to make a permanent decision.

Attorney General John O’Connor called Mai’s injunction “very limited” and applauded the judge’s support for opt-out policies.

“While we disagree that any part of the law is unconstitu­tional, my office will take the time afforded to us to determine the best legal strategy moving forward,” O’Connor said in a statement.

Because of the ongoing lawsuit, the state Education Department will not prevent schools from requiring masks, state schools Superinten­dent Joy Hofmeister said.

“Today is a victory for families, the safeguardi­ng of schoolchil­dren and their opportunit­y to learn in-person,” Hofmeister said in a statement. “The court’s striking of the mask mandate prohibitio­n on SB 658 now enables schools to fulfill their duty to protect and ensure equal protection for all students, including those with disabiliti­es and most vulnerable in our schools.”

The U.S. Department of Education notified state officials Monday it will open a civil rights investigat­ion into SB 658.

The federal agency’s Office of Civil Rights will explore whether it unlawfully takes away the opportunit­y for in-person learning for students with disabiliti­es, who could be at heightened risk of severe COVID-19 illness.

Walters said the investigat­ion is federal overreach into a state issue.

“Having the federal government step into the state of Oklahoma and try to bully Oklahomans into adopting a certain policy is not something we’re going to stand for,” he said. “The Biden administra­tion is way out of line, and we will push back when they try to enter into the state of Oklahoma and dictate to our parents what decisions should be made for their child.”

Four Oklahoma parents and the Oklahoma State Medical Associatio­n filed the lawsuit to overturn SB 658 on Aug. 12, arguing the school mask mandate ban was unconstitu­tional.

Their attorney, Chad Taylor, said there’s no rational basis to allow mask mandates in private schools but prohibit them in public schools.

“COVID doesn’t care about your race,” Taylor said. “COVID doesn’t care about your ethnicity. It doesn’t care about your income status. It doesn’t care if you’re a public school or a private school.

“The safety and the risk is the same for each group. That’s what makes this law unconstitu­tional.”

Bryan Cleveland, of the Oklahoma attorney general’s office, argued the state Legislatur­e was well within its authority to govern public schools when it passed SB 658.

Cleveland also questioned the efficacy of masks as reason to keep the law in place. He contended mask policies are supported by “glorified anecdotes” rather than scientific evidence.

“The science isn’t really there for it,” Cleveland said during the hearing.

Taylor countered by pointing to the state Health Department’s guidance for COVID-19 prevention in schools. The first mitigation strategy the Health Department recommends is “consistent and correct use of masks.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend universal masking in K-12 schools to prevent transmissi­on of COVID-19. CDC studies have shown mask wearing helps reduce spread of the disease.

Supporters of the effort to overturn the law celebrated the ruling.

Havilah Bagnaro, a mother of three in Edmond Public Schools, said she fears for her youngest son’s safety when he attends school with no mask mandate. She said he suffers from a seizure disorder brought on by illness.

“If they want to make it a personal liberty thing, it’s an infringeme­nt on my personal liberty to be able to send my kids to school safely without worry if there aren’t mask mandates in place for children K-12,” Bagnaro said.

The ruling is “just a first step” in returning COVID-19 mitigation decisions to local school boards, said Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Associatio­n.

“We must all do our part to keep the community safe,” Clarke said in a statement. “This includes allowing our schools and businesses the freedom to develop mitigation efforts that can slow the spread of this terrible virus.”

Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalist­s by purchasing a digital subscripti­on today at

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