Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is in a stand-off with local school officials in the rural Cherokee Nation, with the school board insisting they can require that students wear masks in their Covid-ravaged community and the GOP governor claiming the board is in violation of state law.
Stitt is one of eight Republican governors defending a statewide ban on mask mandates for students by fighting with local school boards, taking the culture war to a new and acrimonious level just a year before most of them stand for reelection.
Local officials, noting the spikes in Covid-19 case rates in their areas, say they're less interested in the political debate than in protecting students. As the dog days of summer transition into a new school year, these school systems are having to take on powerful GOP executives for the ability to keep their doors open.
"I need our school day to be as normal as possible," Jolyn Choate, the superintendent of Hulbert Public Schools in Oklahoma's Cherokee County, told CNN. Choate said the best path to normalcy, for now, is for everyone in Hulbert schools to mask up.
The Hulbert district consists of just three schools -- one elementary, one middle and one high. There are 594 students enrolled and 82 faculty and staff members, from certified teachers to cafeteria workers. Hulbert, Choate said, has no vaccine requirements for employees.
Less than a week into the school year, Hulbert schools had seven confirmed Covid cases. By then, every middle and high school student was sent home for virtual learning. Things began to get out of control. Choate even found herself driving a school bus, filling in for a driver who had tested positive.
"It alarmed everyone when we had to quarantine as quickly as we did," Choate said.
On August 18, the fifth day of school, Hulbert's school board voted to require masks be worn inside school buildings and on school buses. The decision, Choate said in a letter to parents and teachers, was difficult but necessary for keeping the maximum number of students in person. Students can opt out with either a medical note or by taking classes virtually from their home -- exceptions that Choate claims keeps the district's decision legal.
But within a day, the governor and another top Oklahoma Republican, state attorney general John O'Connor, accused Hulbert schools of violating a recently passed law banning mask mandates.
"It is disappointing that one school district has chosen to openly violate a state law that was supported by 80 percent of the Legislature," said Stitt in a statement.
In his own statement from the same press release, O'Connor accused the Hulbert school district of "undermining" the state of Oklahoma's constitution.
"Under our constitution, the Legislature gets to set the policy of the state—especially on controversial issues like this," O'Connor said.
Despite the initial harsh blowback, Choate said in the week since her announcement, neither the governor nor the attorney general has been in touch with the school district. There's been no legal action yet taken against Hulbert Public Schools, and students, faculty and staff continue to wear masks.
"I thought maybe the governor would reach out to me and call," said Choate.
A spokesperson for Stitt did not respond to questions from CNN.
Hulbert is one of several districts in Oklahoma to have mask requirements. Oklahoma City Public Schools, the state's largest district, has its own rule requiring masks with medical and religious exceptions allowed. But Superintendent Dr. Sean McDaniel has told local media outlets the decision was his own. The state law, McDaniel said, only prohibits school boards from taking such action.
The law is facing some legal challenges as well. Earlier this month in a state district court, the Oklahoma State Medical Association and a group of parents filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing the ban violates the state constitution. The school board for the Tulsa Public School district has also voted to approve taking legal action to challenge the law.
A spokesman for O'Connor says the attorney general's office is already defending the law against the group of parents and doctors.
"Once the case is fully litigated, we are sure that Oklahoma City Public Schools and other schools across the state will comply with the ruling—rather than lawlessly defy both the legislature and the courts," said Alex Gerszewski, the attorney general's communications director, in a statement to CNN.
Mandatory masking faces challenges nationwide
Stitt is not the only Republican governor to target local school districts for implementing mask mandates.
Along with Oklahoma, seven other states run by Republican governors have either laws or executive orders curbing the ability of local boards to implement mask requirements: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.
In Florida, eight separate school systems are defying Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order allowing parents to opt out of mask requirements. School officials in two Florida counties, Broward and Alachua, have been threatened with penalties for instituting mask mandates.
On Friday, a circuit judge in Leon County ruled against DeSantis' order.
In his opinion, Judge John Cooper said that under the law the Florida governor "did not have the authority for a blanket mandatory ban against face mask policy, that does not provide a parental opt-out. They simply do not have that authority."
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month, also issued an executive order prohibiting local governments and school districts from instituting mask mandates. But nearly 60 school districts in Texas have challenged Abbott's order, either in court or by defying it outright.
Last week the state Supreme Court ruled against Abbott on a technicality, allowing school districts to maintain their mask requirements at least until a lower court reviews the order. Similarly, an Arkansas judge earlier this month blocked the state from enforcing its law, signed by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson, banning mandates after a challenge by one school district. Hutchinson has said he regrets backing the mandate ban.
Some Republican governors who have not prohibited mask mandates outright are limiting local schools, often in the name of empowering parents. In Tennessee, for instance, Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order earlier this month giving parents the chance to opt their children out of school mask requirements.
In an open letter released last week nearly 90 doctors in the state, citing rising case numbers, criticized the order for weakening local school mandates.
"An executive order that allows parents to opt out of masks threatens the public health of entire communities and our state at large," said Dr. Erica Kaye, a Memphis physician who wrote the letter.
Laine Arnold, a spokeswoman for Lee, told CNN the governor is standing by his order, adding that there has been minimal opting out by parents in Tennessee schools that have mandates. In remarks announcing his exemption order, Lee said the state's hospital beds were "struggling under the weight" of unvaccinated adults with Covid, not children.
"Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is in my view the wrong approach," Lee said.
Covid culture war
The GOP positioning on masks in schools is partly a political consideration.
With several governors up for reelection next year -- including a few facing possible primary challenges -- banning mask mandates has been a way for Republicans to signal their populist bona fides. As a group, Republican voters have been among the most resistant to Covid mitigation efforts, from lockdown orders early in the pandemic to mask requirements to vaccinations. Some party leaders, including former President Donald Trump, have at times publicly dismissed masks.
As the new school year began, it became clear that masks on students would become the newest front in the Covid culture war.
Protests against mask mandates in schools across the country in recent weeks have been loud and heated. Earlier this month, the school board in Williamson County, Tennessee, approved a mask requirement for elementary school students, most of whom do not meet the age requirement to be vaccinated. Outside the meeting, demonstrators heckled people leaving the building with threats.
"We know who you are," said one man to a parent who had advocated for the mask requirement, according to a video obtained by CNN. "You can leave freely, but we will find you."
Days later, Lee, the Tennessee governor, announced his "opt-out" order.
The politics for Republicans are not always so obvious, particularly in swing states like Georgia. Gov. Brian Kemp is up for reelection next year in a state that swung to Joe Biden and the Democrats in 2020, following his own close race for governor in 2018.
Kemp has attempted to avoid the sticky politics of the issue by saying the choice to implement mask requirements falls to the state's local school districts.
"We're trusting the local systems, school boards to work with their parents and their administration to make a good decision for each individual school; our kids are going to be better for us doing that," Kemp told Atlanta-area WXIA-TV on August 6.
Back in Hulbert, Oklahoma, nearly every student is back in school, wearing masks. Superintendent Choate said the school will continue to do so until circumstances or the guidance from state and federal health officials change. She noted that masking has improved things. The last day of school before instituting the requirement, there were 154 students in Hulbert who had to quarantine at home.
A week later, and with masking in full effect, that number had dropped to just 22.
The shot from Stitt remains, for the moment, just words.
"As for the governor and the attorney general speaking out against us," Choate said, pausing before continuing with resignation in her voice, "I haven't been presented with anything."
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