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Fourth-grade students at Coolidge Elementary School wear masks in class in this Aug. 13, 2020, file photo. (Billy Hefton / Enid News & Eagle)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Starting next week, public schools in the state can mandate masks as long as they offer parents opt-out options for personal, religious or medical reasons, an Oklahoma County judge ruled Wednesday.

Saying it wasn’t a commentary on the effectiveness of masks, Judge Natalie Mai issued a temporary injunction on the mask mandate prohibition in Senate Bill 658 because the new law singles out students in public schools while excluding those attending private schools. Mai said if the Legislature had opted to ban masks in private schools as well, Wednesday’s hearing, which lasted less than an hour, would have taken two minutes.

She also said the Legislature has the power to set education policy, which includes the ability to decide questions on the use of masks. But she said legislators included the masking ban in a section of law that deals with all school-aged children, and she could not see a compelling state interest in excluding private schools from the law.

Local private schools, exempt from state law, have more leeway for COVID policies

However, Mai said lawmakers have made it clear that it is important that parents have the option to decide whether their children should attend school masked, so families must have the ability to opt out.

She did not rule on the constitutionality of the measure, saying that would happen at a later date.

A group of doctors and parents last month sued the Legislature and the governor over the law. Supporters say it protects parental choice by banning public schools, colleges, universities and technical programs from mandating masks for unvaccinated students — unless Gov. Kevin Stitt declares a state of emergency. Critics say it prevents local school districts from issuing mask mandates aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, particularly among younger children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Mai said her injunction only impacts K-12 public schools.

Both sides claimed victory following the ruling.

“We are pleased with the outcome of today’s hearing; however, this is just a first step in ensuring our schools maintain local control and can choose the best path for their students, faculty and staff,” said Dr. Mary Clarke, a Stillwater physician and president of Oklahoma Medical Association. The group is among those challenging the constitutionality of the law.

“It is important to remember that while we’ve seen how easily COVID can spread in schools, the virus doesn’t stay within the school walls,” Clarke said. “For each infected student, there is a risk of additional infections amongst their friends, family and the community.”

Chad Taylor, OMA attorney, said the decision essentially means the state cannot attempt to enforce its masking prohibitions. It puts things back to the way they were in January.

“We’ve gone back to what works,” he said.

In a tweet, Gov. Kevin Stitt said the ruling “is a victory for parental choice, personal responsibility and the rule of law.”

“I have been clear from the beginning that parents should have the right to make decisions about the health and education of their children,” he said.

State Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, the Senate author of the measure, said he viewed the ruling as a “win” for parents because the court recognized the intent of the Legislature to allow parents to have a choice.

“I applaud the court for seeing the intent in the law that we clearly wanted parents to have a say in this,” he said.

Standridge said private schoolchildren were exempted from the law because Senate staff believed that because lawmakers only fund public schools, they only had authority to restrict masking in those entities.

“Obviously the judge disagrees with us,” he said.

State Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, House author of the measure, said while he hasn’t had a chance to review the decision, he disagreed with Mai’s ruling. He said lawmakers don’t legislate or fund private K-12 schools. Parents who don’t like the policy at a private school just move to another school.

He said he’s absolutely “glad” that parents will have the choice to opt-out in districts that mandate masks.

“I am still disappointed, but I am glad that we at the very least have that because at the end of the day, that is a medical device, and if you’re saying that it will prevent the spread of a disease, a communicable disease, then by definition, it’s a medical device,” West said. “The only people who should be able to make that decision are the individuals or in this case, the parents, and that was the overall reasoning behind the bill to begin with.”

An attorney for the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office said he had no comment following the ruling.

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Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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