August 17, 2021

John Thompson: Who Will Push Back For Masks

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John Thompson is an educator and historian in Oklahoma. Here he offers the latest drawing of battle lines over pandemic schooling.

As orders in Florida, Texas, and Arizona and other states that banned mask mandates in schools were challenged in court, I kept asking people if Oklahomans would resist SB658, which prohibits mask requirements in schools. But I kept hearing the same basic answer, “Not gonna happen.”

Even so, our state’s public health community and new social media groups, such Moms for Masks, stepped up pressure for that essential step for protecting children and families. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister continued to fight for our students, saying, “I would strongly encourage students and staff and school personnel to consider masking indoors, to think of this in the same way we think of second hand smoke, we know that this causes danger to others around us as well as the one who is smoking,”

Then, Chris Brewster, superintendent of the 3,500 student Santa Fe South charter school system, announced that he would defy SB658. The Frontier quoted Brewster, “’I am operating within the advice of my attorneys and doing my very best to protect my kids at the schools first,’” and adding that “he is ‘willing to confront’ potential legal challenges.” That evening, the Tulsa Public School Board of Education authorized its attorneys to initiate litigation against the law.

Later that week, pediatricians and staff at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital rallied in support of masks and vaccines for students. Even better, Oklahoma State Medical Association and a group of parents filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of SB658. One of its key arguments was that the Oklahoma Constitution guarantees children a free education and mandates attendance, and students have the “right to attend school without the government endangering or jeopardizing their health.”

Moreover, as the Oklahoman explained, the Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) “delegated its coronavirus response to its superintendent.” Since the bill prohibited school boards, not superintendents, from ordering a mask mandate, Superintendent Sean McDaniel was able to mandate masks for students and staff, and close district campuses to outsiders during the school day. So, McDaniel could then say, “I think I’m actually upholding the law by taking this route because it is specific to school boards.”

And as the Oklahoma City Free Press reported, “Superintendents are, in fact, responsible for the safety of all students and staff in all circumstances as McDaniel said.”

The real issue, as was reported in the Oklahoman, was that, “In the first three days of school, the district’s number of active COVID-19 cases surged from four to 119.”

The Frontier also reported that Governor Kevin Stitt’s office “did not respond to a request for comment” on the school systems’ resistance to SB658, and “Rep. Kevin West (R), one of the bill’s authors, said he was disappointed to see schools oppose the law but pointed out there are no specific penalties in the legislation.” But, West added, “If a school chooses to violate the law they are opening themselves up to a civil lawsuit from parents. That’s really just parental involvement. Beyond that I guess we will see what happens.”

The Free Press also reported that Rep. West condemned the OKCPS’s mandate (but not the charter school’s) as “’GOVERNMENT control.’” Moreover, Rep. Sean Roberts (R) condemned the districts’ orders, “‘Public schools knowingly violating state law borders on anarchy, and we must hold any government entity that knowingly and willfully violates state law accountable.’”

Of course, we know what will happen if schools in the middle of the Delta variant super-spread are not allowed to protect their students. We will see what happens to the rightwingers’ disproportionately sickening and killing of their own constituencies; it doesn’t seem to be a durable political strategy.

I have long had many differences with Santa Fe South’s Chris Brewster, and Deborah Gist, the Tulsa superintendent. Just last week, I’d acknowledged that the OKCPS had done a good job resisting anti-Critical Race Theory extremists, defending teachers, and emphasizing the role of trauma in its high-poverty schools. But, I argued that the district’s “relative silence on new constraints for protecting public health is disturbing. Right now, they should make their students’ health the #1 priority.”

Now is the time to put all of these differences behind and unite in the battle to protect the health of students and entire communities. If we unite, it will become impossible for Trumpians to enforce those ridiculous and dangerous laws. After all, even Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett ruled in favor of Indiana University’s vaccine requirement.

Then, on Thursday, the state Health Department implemented emergency rules that “grant hospitals flexibility to see more COVID-19 patients and allow the agency to collect additional virus data from hospitals and testing labs.” The Oklahoman explains that these rules “will essentially allow the Health Department to do everything it was able to when the state was under an emergency declaration, but with one key difference: Gov. Kevin Stitt doesn’t have to impose a state of emergency.”

And, both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association endorsed mandatory vaccination of teachers. Also, schools can make a huge difference by investing in the tactic which educators are uniquely skilled for – reaching out to the communities we serve. We should listen to Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Monica Schoch-Spana, team up with “trusted influencers,” listening to vaccine-hesitant constituencies and providing concise, science-based evidence.

I understand why administrators who have seen decades of abuse dumped on what the reactionaries call “Government schools,” were slow to resist. But, now is the time when educators can double-down on efforts to save lives, and in doing so, we could win the longterm victories that will head off future threats by ideology-driven rightwingers who have spread dangerous the anti-vaxxer and anti-mask lies that are killing so many people. 

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