Ray Carter | August 20, 2021

Biden ignores Taliban, targets Oklahoma parent choice

Ray Carter

Amidst a crisis in Afghanistan that critics view as the biggest foreign-policy debacle since the Iranian hostage crisis of the 1970s, President Joe Biden announced his administration will use the force of the U.S. government to challenge individuals he said are “setting a dangerous tone”—in the United States, not in Afghanistan.

Rather than target Taliban control overseas, Biden announced he will target U.S. states that allow parents a choice in whether their children are masked at school.

The announcement has drawn strong pushback from state leaders.

“I trust Oklahoma parents, not President Biden and his liberal Department of Education who are trying to dictate from Washington, D.C., how Oklahoma parents protect their children,” said Secretary of Education Ryan Walters. “Our state law is clear: Parents need to be given a choice for whether their child wears a mask in school. This administration’s obsession with overruling parents should be concerning to every Oklahoman.”

During a brief appearance on Aug. 18, Biden announced that the U.S. Department of Education will use all “oversight authorities and legal actions” against states that allow parents to choose whether to mask their children at school, a group that includes Oklahoma.

A law enacted this year, Senate Bill 658, states that Oklahoma schools may not implement “a mask mandate for students who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19” unless the district is in an area “under a current state of emergency declared by the governor.”

Biden also said he would effectively federalize funding for schools that defy Oklahoma’s law on mask mandates and replace their state funding with federal bailout funds from the American Rescue Plan. As an example, Biden said the federal government could fully fund teacher salaries at schools that violate a state law that bans mask mandates.

In a separate blog post, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said his agency could “investigate” school districts for civil rights violations should a school not require all students to wear masks, referencing students “who may experience discrimination as a result of states not allowing local school districts to reduce virus transmission risk through masking requirements and other mitigation measures.”

In a letter sent to Gov. Kevin Stitt and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister, Cardona wrote that federal officials “are aware that Oklahoma has enacted a State law prohibiting” schools from “adopting requirements for the universal wearing of masks.”

In contrast to Gov. Kevin Stitt and Attorney General John O’Connor, Joy Hofmeister quickly endorsed the Biden position.

Cardona claimed requirements tied to federal bailout funding provided to schools through the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 force schools to adopt plans that include “universal and correct wearing of masks.”

He then declared that federal law also allows local school districts to use those federal bailout funds to implement “indoor masking policies” in defiance of state law.

The threat did not lead Stitt to buckle.

A day later, Stitt and Attorney General John O’Connor publicly criticized Hulbert Public Schools after officials in that district illegally mandated masks for all students and adults.

“It is disappointing that one school district has chosen to openly violate a state law that was supported by 80 percent of the Legislature,” Stitt said. “The goal of SB 658 was to ensure every student in Oklahoma could go to school in person and parents retained the fundamental right to make health care decisions for their children. To be clear, no parent is banned from sending their child to school with a mask and no school may mandate masks or vaccines. I will always stand up for parents’ right to decide what is best for their child.”

“We are vigorously defending SB 658 in court because it is plainly constitutional and helps protect the choices of students and parents,” O’Connor said. “Under the new law, public school boards cannot implement a mask mandate, unless certain conditions are met, including that the school district be in an area under a current state of emergency declared by the governor. Under our constitution, the Legislature gets to set the policy of the state—especially on controversial issues like this—and schools should not be actively trying to undermine our constitutional structure of government by violating duly-enacted state law.”

In contrast, Hofmeister responded by quickly endorsing the Biden position, tweeting, “School districts must have the autonomy to enact policies that protect our schoolchildren and staff from COVID exposure and infection. And—for schools to remain open for in-person instruction, the to-do list is clear: Get vaccinated and wear a mask.”

Throughout the pandemic, Hofmeister has endorsed dramatic restrictions on students and schools. A plan promoted by Hofmeister prior to the start of the 2020-21 school year would have required school districts to close all physical sites when rates topped 25 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population. Had that plan been implemented, all but five of the more than 500 school districts in Oklahoma would have been closed at one point in January.

Instead, most schools remained open with little negative consequence for students and their families.

One reason Hofmeister’s plan would have closed so many schools was the very low threshold involved. For example, in Roger Mills County, which covers 1,141 square miles, a single positive COVID-19 case would have required school closures under the threshold initially endorsed by Hofmeister.

To date, school-age children have not been as likely to catch COVID-19 as adults, and severe illness from the virus is rare among that age group with COVID deaths extremely rare among children. In addition, children have not been shown to be a major source of viral spread so far.

While the Census shows that 24 percent of the Oklahoma population is younger than 18 years of age, data maintained by the Oklahoma State Department of Health shows that those younger than 18 represent just under 14 percent of COVID infections recorded in Oklahoma as of data posted on Aug. 18. Just 0.04 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Oklahoma have occurred among those younger than 18.

At the same time, vaccines are widely available for adults and teachers were given priority for vaccination.

During his comments, Biden acknowledged that vaccines protect adults even as he nonetheless insisted students should be required to wear masks. Biden noted that “more than 90 percent of seniors have at least had one shot, and 70 percent of people over the age 12 have gotten their first shot as well.” He said those who have been vaccinated are “highly protected against severe illness and death from COVID-19.”

Biden’s effort to strip masking choice from Oklahoma parents comes as expert projections indicate Oklahoma’s current wave of COVID-19 infections may have already peaked.

The covidestim project, a joint effort of officials from Yale, Harvard, and Stanford, uses an in-house statistical model that combines evidence on COVID-19 transmission, natural history, and diagnosis with reported cases and deaths for nearly every state and county in the U.S.

The project produces an effective-reproductive number for COVID-19 in each state. When the effective-reproductive number is above one, COVID cases are projected to increase, but when the effective-reproductive number is below one, cases are expected to decrease in the near future.

As of Aug. 18, the project showed that Oklahoma’s effective reproductive number has been declining and had fallen to 0.82.

(Photo Credit: Associated Press)

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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