Law & Principles

Ray Carter | September 16, 2021

Despite law, school mask and quarantine mandates imposed

Ray Carter

With a state law that bans mask mandates in legal limbo, Oklahoma colleges and K-12 schools continue to impose mask and quarantine mandates upon healthy students. College students who question those policies have faced retaliation, while in Edmond parents are suing the school district.

Colleges and public schools have imposed such policies even as COVID data from the respective schools shows very few individuals overall have active cases of the virus.

Edmond Parents Sue

The Edmond lawsuit, filed by three sets of parents on Sept. 14, alleges the Edmond school district has violated students’ constitutionally protected due-process rights, violated students’ First Amendment rights to publicly assemble, and broken state law by imposing lengthy quarantines of healthy, unvaccinated children.

Under Edmond’s current COVID-19 restrictions, the lawsuit notes that minor children “were excluded from their schools and, ultimately, other places of public assembly.”

The Edmond policy requires that unvaccinated students who are believed to have been potentially exposed to someone with COVID-19 must “be physically excluded from school for a seven- or ten-day quarantine period.” The lawsuit notes that policy is not recommended by the Oklahoma State Health Department.

While Edmond has an estimated 28,448 students, the lawsuit notes less than 1 percent—255 individuals—had active cases of COVID-19 when the lawsuit was filed, yet 999 students had been ordered into quarantine.

The lawsuit notes that research “strongly indicates significant adverse emotional and behavioral changes” impact children subjected to quarantine.

OSU Student Editor Forced Out

At the same time, the editor in chief of the student newspaper at Oklahoma State University has been forced to step down after questioning a mask mandate at that school.

In a Sept. 9 opinion column, Maddison Farris, editor in chief of the O’Colly, wrote of how she had recently been kicked out of a class for not wearing a mask, even though Senate Bill 658 “informed me that a mask could not be required of me within a school setting in the state of Oklahoma.”

SB 658 states that several educational entities, including any board of education of a public school district, the board of regents of an institution within The Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, and the State Board of Education “shall not” require “a vaccination against Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) as a condition of admittance to or attendance of the school or institution” or implement “a mask mandate for students who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19” outside a declared health emergency.

Farris said the incident occurred prior to any court rulings on SB 658.

After the incident in her class, Farris reported receiving some criticism but also “overwhelming” support that included “an abundance of encouragement from students, faculty, and even parents of other students, many of whom I have never met.”

She wrote that OSU’s mask policy had been adopted to “appease the faculty after receiving threats of possible ‘civil disobedience,’” and encouraged students to make their voices heard.

“Students at Oklahoma State need to wake up and realize they have a voice,” Farris wrote. “They have the right to make their own decisions, to make their own choices, to decide for themselves what is best for them.”

After publication, Farris said the editorial team of the O’Colly met with her and demanded she resign.

“Every editor and our advisor had the opportunity to read it before it was even printed, before it was even published, and didn’t say a single thing,” Farris said. “The way that we proof our pages, we print them out on big, long legal paper to see what it would look like, and then we all go through and we all read the stories and make AP-style corrections and all kinds of stuff like that. And it’s just so hard for me to believe that they had issues with it and didn’t say anything, and then as soon as it’s out, then there’s problems.”

The O’Colly, which operates under the School of Media & Strategic Communications at Oklahoma State University, subsequently issued a “correction” stating that the “words in the column are that of an opinion, which do not reflect the views of the whole editorial board.” The “correction” claimed Farris should have said the professor was reportedly immunocompromised, accused Farris of providing a “misleading” description of SB 658, and flatly declared that “professors are within their rights and within the law to ask students to wear a mask” because the law “does not apply to people such as teachers, principals, individual school officials and professors.”

“We welcome any and all opinions offering rebuttal of this column, and do not wish to diminish any opinion,” the O’Colly “correction” stated. “As American citizens, we affirm our belief in the First Amendment and the right as journalists to express our personal opinions no matter if our viewpoint is different from those around us.”

Farris said she continued to receive positive support from other students after her column was published but said most expressed those views via direct messages and email because students didn’t want to be publicly identified and face similar retaliation.

Oklahoma State University reports having 23,771 enrolled on its Stillwater campus this fall. OSU officials report only 247 active COVID cases as of Sept. 14. The university reports that 2,670 of its 5,584 employees have been vaccinated.

OU Professor to Student: ‘Go Get a Lawyer’

A similar incident recently occurred at the Norman campus of the University of Oklahoma. An audio recording provided to the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) shows that OU officials forced a student to leave class because the student was not masked.

OCPA is not identifying the student due to the potential for retaliation.

When the student noted that SB 658 allows college students to determine if they wear a mask, an instructor responded that staff “must adhere” to university policy, that “my hands” are “tied,” and declared that he/she was “not going to start class because you’re putting everybody else’s safety at risk.”

At one point when the student noted state law supersedes university policy, a professor can be heard responding, “Then go get a lawyer.”

As with Edmond and OSU, COVID-19 is virtually nonexistent on the OU campus, according to the university’s own public reports.

In the spring semester, OU officials reported having 26,165 students on the Norman campus. (Data for the fall semester has not yet been posted.) From Aug. 24 to Sept. 7, OU reported 110 new cases on campus over that two-week period.

Rep. Kevin West, a Moore Republican who was House author of SB 658, said many claims that “loopholes” in the law allow school employees to independently impose requirements that a school board cannot don’t pass the laugh test.

“Anyone with any level of intelligence knows that if a superintendent does something that a school board doesn’t want that superintendent to do, that superintendent will be replaced or corrected real quick,” West said. “It’s being done with the approval of these boards.”

West said no one has produced a clear explanation of what legal authority allows college professors to impose class mandates when a university is banned from imposing the same mandates, although he said ongoing litigation may ultimately address that issue.

Some critics have suggested colleges should have to provide refunds to students kicked out of class over mask mandates that are of dubious legal authority or medical validity. West said that’s a valid point.

“If it was my child, I would definitely be fighting tooth and nail to get refunded,” West said. “You paid for services that you’re not getting, and in any other instance you get your money back.”

In an email, an unindentified official with the University of Oklahoma’s media-relations office said the school would not provide refunds to students denied classroom access and instruction due to the university’s mask-mandate policy, which the official said is imposed on students in a classroom that included another individual who tested positive for COVID at some point.

“The university’s limited masking protocol does not distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated persons, and remains legally compliant by ensuring exemptions exist as required by law,” the OU statement said. “As classes remain accessible to students adhering to the safety protocols and, to the university’s knowledge no student following the protocols has been denied access, there is no basis for refunds.”

OSU officials did not respond to a request for comment.

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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