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On Wednesday at 5PM, members of the Tulsa Board of Education will enter into executive session. There, they will vote on whether to authorize the school district’s attorneys to potentially consider legal action against Governor Stitt and the state.
It is an extraordinary moment – the possibility of a school district allowing a lawsuit against its Governor for his abject refusal to protect the lives of students. However this extraordinary moment is of the governor’s own making. Stitt has ignored calls from parents, health officials and educators across Oklahoma to take action and protect our children.
This conscious decision to put politics before the lives and livelihoods of his constituents has made legal action necessary.
Governor’s inaction will disproportionately harm Oklahoma’s public school children
The governor signed SB 658 into law on May 1st. The bill, passed by the Republican-lead legislature, made it illegal for public schools to implement mask requirements without a state of emergency in place. Three days after signing the bill into law, Governor Stitt rescinded the state of emergency. He refuses to re-issue it and his Republican colleagues in the legislature have remained largely silent.
This bill, it should be noted, does not prohibit private schools from implementing mask requirements. In fact, several wealthier private schools around the state have already issued mask requirements.
Tulsa and Oklahoma City, the two largest public school districts in the state, are barred from implementing the same protections. These districts serve predominantly students of color and students from low economic backgrounds. These two demographics are already among the most affected by COVID-19 and the effects of SB 658 will continue to cause public school children and families disproportionate harm.
Tulsa Board of Education President Stacey Woolley elevated this point in a town hall on Monday night, saying this bill essentially decides “who will be more protected than others.”
This effort by the governor also endangers many exceptional and special needs students across our state. Public schools also serve students with multiple disabilities. These students are at even higher risk of serious illness and complications from COVID-19. Failing to properly protect our children in greatest need is both reckless and negligent.
COVID-19 spiking rising in children across the state and region
Oklahoma is in the midst of a crisis. Pediatric cases across the state are rising dramatically. In the last two weeks of July alone, cases of the virus in children rose by more than 250%. Reports show that as many as 40 children remain hospitalized across the state with the virus.
Hospitals across the state are nearing or reaching capacity as unvaccinated Oklahomans overwhelm COVID wards. Mercy Hospital reported on Monday that they had to deny 121 transfer requests over the weekend because they simply did not have enough beds available. In the state of Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott has recently asked surrounding states for help as hospitals there reach capacity. Like Stitt, Abbott has also made it illegal for schools to implement mask requirements.
These jarring numbers will undoubtedly continue to increase once school resumes in just a few days. This spread could be mitigated if schools were allowed to follow CDC guidelines, but the Governor and Republicans in the legislature have stripped school districts, and thereby parents, of local control.
When questioned about not issuing a state of emergency, the Governor repeats phrases about “the freedom to choose”. Unfortunately, this virus is not deterred by patriotic slogans but rather by science. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the American Association of Pediatrics have both urged urged universal masking in schools to prevent the spread while allowing for in-person learning.
It’s time to put our children before politics
This issue – the issue of our children’s’ safety – should have nothing to do with politics. The governor’s allegiance should lie with the wellbeing of our children and not with special interest groups.
And yet, the simplest mitigation effort of using masks to ensure children’s’ safety and continue in-person learning uninterrupted is being warped by some, like our governor, for political gain.
All of this could end now, today, with the governor issuing a state of emergency. Stitt could easily follow the lead of Arkansas Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson by giving local control back to school districts. Doing so would put the health of our children, our teachers and our communities over politics. He would be demonstrating leadership that Oklahomans need and deserve.
However, as of now, it appears unlikely Stitt will do what is right to keep our children safe. The governor has abdicated his personal responsibility to our students, our teachers, our healthcare heroes and our communities. Until he finally assumes that responsibility, our cities and school board must show the leadership he currently lacks.
Local school boards demonstrating the leadership our children deserve
We applaud the Tulsa Board of Education for working to do everything in their power to protect the lives of the more than 30,000 children who will walk into classrooms next Thursday. It is critical that other school districts and cities across the state follow their lead.
We have this happen across the country. Earlier this week in Texas, Dallas ISD and Austin ISD both announced they would rebuff Governor Abbott’s banning of masks in schools. On Tuesday night, the Broward County school district in Florida announced they would defy Governor DeSantis’s by retaining their mask mandate as well.
News On 6 reported this morning that State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister is advocating for districts to retain local control over these decisions. Hofmeister reported said she is praying “we do not come to some kind of collision of politics and science.”
We still hope our governor will choose to do the right thing and issue a state of emergency.
Absent that, should the board take this step of opening the door to potential legal action against him and the state, it will be nothing less than the demonstration of leadership our children deserve.
Their lives must be worth infinitely more than any individual’s political ambitions or quest for power.
We can end this together by all getting vaccinated
Getting the vaccine is the simplest way we can stop the spread and keep children in school. To find our schedule your vaccine appointment, visit www.vaccines.gov/search. For resources to help stop the spread of misinformation, visit wecandothis.hhs.gov. We are all in this together.