August 26, 2021

John Thompson: Mask Battles Rage on in Oklahoma

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John Thompson is a historian, educator, and keen observer of policy in Oklahoma.

Sen. Warren Hamilton (R – McCurtain County) attended the rally at the Oklahoma State Capitol in support of SB658, which prohibits schools from mandating masks. Leaders of the Oklahoma Republican Party used the 1,000 person rally to repeat “its now-familiar messaging comparing pandemic-related policies to Nazi Germany and its atrocities.” And Sen. Hamilton posted on Facebook:
Yesterday capitol security confirmed 5500 patriots stood together to send a message for freedom not force! I hope those under the threat of these mandates got the message they are not standing alone for freedom.

The next day he posted, “Together, we will lock hands at the gates of liberty and put freedom back on the offensive where it belongs!” – and asked for campaign donations to continue the fight.

Will voters in Hamilton’s McCurtain County and 76 other Republican counties continue to agree?

The next day, Fox News reported:

Most schools in Oklahoma have been open for less than a week and already four schools have had to switch to close due to an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Two schools lie in the far southeastern part of the state: McCurtain County.

In my previous post, I thanked three school systems, parents, and Oklahoma medical leaders for challenging the ban on mask mandates during this COVID super-spread. I urged other education leaders to “double-down on efforts to save lives.” And, I expressed the opinion, “In doing so, we could win the longterm victories that will head off future threats by ideology-driven rightwingers who have spread the dangerous anti-vaxxer and anti-mask lies that are killing so many people.”

Hospitals, public health experts, and parents have continued to take the lead, calling for vaccinations and masks. Four major Oklahoma City hospital systems held a joint press conference, emphasizing that “93 percent of Oklahomans who have been hospitalized in the last month with COVID were unvaccinated.” Similarly, Tulsa’s Saint Francis Health Systemdescribed the pandemic as a “slow-rolling, mass casualty event.”

As an Oklahoma City hospital representative was saying, “We’re drowning,” a Stillwater Medical Center spokesperson said that it has lost more than 25 percent of its nurses because “this second surge is just too much for them to bear. … ‘It’s very similar to PTSD,’ … They say I simply cannot go through this emotional sacrifice again.’” And, the Oklahoma State Department of Health described the state’s hospital system as “‘unstable,’ stating that, ‘Services (are) disrupted and no solution (is) identified or in progress.’”

Stillwater parents have joined the Oklahoma Medical Association lawsuit challenging the ban on mask mandates. Stillwater schools already have 17 staff and 193 students with cases and contacts.

(After its 7th day of classes (that began without a mask mandate), the much larger Oklahoma City Public Schools has identified “147 active cases of COVID among its student population and 42 active staff cases.” The OKCPS has had 61 students opt out of the mask requirement, and it has put six teachers on administrative leave for refusing to comply.)

Parents continued to express their fears on social media, and report infections in their children’s schools. For instance, Moms for Masks is up to 1,600 members. Moreover, nearly 800 Norman parents “have signed a petition urging the district to create safer mitigation efforts for their students.” Similarly, State Sen. Carri Hicks, a former teacher, has resisted SB658, saying that both her 5-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son were exposed in the Putnam City School District, adding that her son has type-one diabetes. And an Edmond parent has been notified that three of her children “have been exposed to COVID – one of them multiple times.”

However, the business community has been more divided and vague about the state’s prohibition of mask mandates. The McAlester News reports, “Tensions grew Monday between conservative Republicans and the state’s business community over whether employers should have the power to impose COVID-19 vaccination policies.”  It reported that “Chad Warmington, president and CEO of the State Chamber of Oklahoma, said Monday that he hoped that the long-time pro-business Legislature wasn’t planning to reverse course due to a global pandemic and overreach into the private sector.” Warmington said:

Allowing a business to make an organization-specific decision on vaccination policies to protect the health and safety of their employees and clientele is the right decision for our state. … Setting a one-size-fits-all policy for every business in Oklahoma is government overreach into the private sector.

But, school systems’ leaders seem to have remained even more timid. To the best of my knowledge, only Harding Fine Arts charter school has followed the first three school systems, listened to parents, and mandated masks.

As most education leaders continue to duck their responsibility to protect their students’ health, tensions are growing. State Impact has found 13 schools have already “closed or pivoted to distance learning because of cases of COVID-19.”

And that brings us back to the closure of two schools in McCurtain County. They are a reminder that Oklahoma is another case study of the rightwing campaigns against public education and public health. McCurtain County is so far into the state’s “Little Dixie” region that it borders Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, which all saw huge COVID surges. Conversely, it’s next to Paris, Texas, where more than 3/4ths of voters supported Trump. But, Paris ISD is one of more than 50 Texas districts that are challenging Gov. Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

So, why are Oklahoma’s suburban districts, for instance, not standing up for the health of their students? Do they assume that ideology-driven restrictions on vaccines and masks will remain a winning anti-education tactic?  Forget the moral dimensions of their failure to protect children and families for a second; wouldn’t it be politically smart for education leaders to resist the rightwing attack on public health that is even dividing their own constituencies?

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