Robby Bass shows off his mask while visiting his grandmother in Broken Arrow. His mother Elizabeth Bass says wearing a mask has come easily to the 4-year-old.

Courtesy Elizabeth Bass

Masking rules a patchwork in Oklahoma schools

Though a majority of districts require masks in some places, policies remains inconsistent

  • Robby Korth

Courtesy Elizabeth Bass

The Bass family of Norman. Elizabeth Bass says mandatory masking policies make her feel better about her kids being in school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Norman Public Schools’ strict masking rule is the main reason Elizabeth Bass sent her child to school.

The masks – not just on her child but on all of her teachers and classmates too – are a layer of security that makes her family feel safe.

“I’m still not completely comfortable, but we’re not necessarily in a position where we could do virtual learning all the time,” Bass said. 

Having her daughter Penny in school and her younger son Robby at daycare – where masks are also required for teachers – has allowed Bass and her husband to work. It’s still scary, she said. Her father and brother both caught COVID-19 earlier this year and she wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But taking basic precautions is key and it’s easy for Bass’s kids.

“It doesn’t bother them,” she said. They just see it as something that they’re doing to help protect other people and to keep themselves safe. It has never been a big deal to them.”

Important is the perfect word doctors and state education leaders say. For weeks, they’ve touted the importance of wearing masks. But, Oklahoma’s State Board of Education has declined to mandate them just like Gov. Kevin Stitt.

“We do need everyone in this state to take this incredibly seriously,” board member Jennifer Monies said. “And we trust that local communities know to do what’s best for their kids and their districts so I appreciate what we’re doing.”

Despite that trust, masking rules are applied unevenly statewide. A survey conducted by the State Department of Education last month found about 80 percent have some rules requiring masks in place. However, those rules are applied unevenly and only about half of the state’s schools require masks in the classroom. Many policies simply apply to buses or hallways during passing periods.

And that’s not good enough, State schools superintendent Joy Hofmeister said.

“We cannot accept that this is going to simply go away without extra vigilance and we are imploring our local school districts, of course, and superintendents to have a mask requirement of all staff and students on campus,” she said.

Courtesy Abby Pike

Masks like these sewed by Edmond eighth grader Abby Pike are not always required in the state’s schools after a motion to do so failed at a summer Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting.

Effectiveness of masks

Dwight Sublett doesn’t mince words.

“It is imperative in my mind that we have a mandatory mask policy for the schools,” Sublett said earlier this month in a press event put on by the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy calling for a statewide mask mandate. 

Sublett, President of the Oklahoma chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics, said masks work. They effectively slow the spread of COVID-19, a disease that’s rapidly getting more out of control in Oklahoma.

He’s backed up by the child advocacy group, who recently purchased digital billboard space near the Capitol and in Tulsa, asking for a statewide mandate.

Hofmeister said a statewide mandate would be ideal.

“If there was a way to direct that as state superintendent, I would have done that a long time ago,” she said.

But because of the politics around it, a statewide mandate is unlikely to become a reality, so she and others are advocating for individual districts to put them in place.

Doctors like Sublett are asking them to ignore the politics of masking.

“This is not in any way a political statement, it’s not a philosophical thing,” Sublett said. “Put that aside. It is purely and simply a matter of public health.”

Robby Korth / StateImpact Oklahoma

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister address the media during a press conference March 12 about COVID-19 and the potential for school closures. Since then, the two have had different messages about mask mandates in Oklahoma schools.

Pushback against masking

Gov. Stitt has said a mask mandate isn’t going to happen in Oklahoma.

And it’s purely a philosophical thing.

In a press conference last week, Stitt continued to say personal responsibility was the only way to beat the virus as it surges.

“So we’ve said 100 times up here, wear a mask, keep your distance,” Stitt said then. “But as far as a mandate, I’ve been very clear that I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. This is about pleading with people to do the right thing.”

The state’s top health officials have backed him up, saying that they believe masking rules should be left up to elected leaders.

State Epidemiologist Jared Taylor said he wouldn’t publicly endorse something like a mask mandate because it isn’t his job.

“I’m here to provide data,” he said. “… Opening schools or doing distance education, whether that’s talking about closing down bars or disrupting houses of worship — that’s not science. That’s not a science question. That’s a political question. And if I ever run for office, then I’ll need to answer that.”

The reality is, state leaders have thrust the responsibility of masking rules in schools at least onto local districts. 

But that’s what some want: local control.

Coyle Public Schools superintendent Terry Zink said local control is important in his district. He wouldn’t want state leaders to tell him what to do.

“At some point we really have to look to something other than the state mandating this,” he said.

He said he has a better understanding of what’s going on in Coyle and its home Logan County than state leaders.

Coyle has a three phased approach to masking and distance learning. In the lowest risk phase – where the school is currently operating – masks are optional. Zink said he personally looks at statewide data and makes a decision weekly for the district. And he doesn’t take it likely. He had COVID-19 in August.

“It was bad,” he said.

At that time, he pivoted the entire district to distance learning after he tested positive because he’d recently visited every single classroom in the district. And mask mandates are probably important in bigger school districts, he said.

But Zink still doesn’t think a mask mandate is necessary statewide.

“If you feel you need to wear masks, then wear it, don’t let the state tell you, hey, you have to do it,” he said. “If you don’t feel that way and you get it, then it’s on you.”

How will masking look moving forward

The patchwork is likely to continue. 

School districts like ones in Stilwell and Broken Arrow have mask mandates in their school hallways despite local governments declining to implement one. Districts like Coyle are unlikely to want one.

And masking rules might not matter that much as the pandemic rages out of control and continues to force schools to pivot to distance learning to reduce the risk of outbreaks.

Hofmeister said though it’ll be difficult to pull off, she’ll continue to advocate for a state-level response that includes masking in all schools.

“School superintendents are educators, they are not public health experts,” Hofmeister said. “I do believe they want the best for their community and those who serve in schools and their students. But a public health crisis, like the one we are in… calls for a state level response and I don’t believe that it can look different school, by school. 

“If we continue down that path, this virus will continue to rage out of control.”

All of this, though matters little to the folks living in places with mask mandates in their schools like Bass of Norman. She’s just grateful Norman Public Schools is taking some preventative measures.

“For our kids, it’s not really made any difference,” she said. “They just put their mask on and go to school and it’s, it’s been fine.”

This COVID-19/education reporting is made possible through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.