Governor Stitt outlines a re-opening plan in 2020. courtesy Trump White House Archive

Mask and vaccine mandate debate rages on

The Delta variant has brought on a new wave of mandates and countermandates, and TU is stuck in the middle.

On May 28, Governor Kevin Stitt signed Senate Bill 658. The new law banned the creation of any mask mandates in public schools throughout the state of Oklahoma without declaration of a state of emergency, which Stitt said he will not declare. Governor Stitt explained the rationale behind the bill as “parents should make the choice
for their kid’s health,” and whether or not to wear a mask is part of that choice. On Aug. 25, the Tulsa City Council shot down a mask-requiring ordinance, opting instead to approve a resolution that encouraged masking up around others.

An investigation has now begun from the U.S. Department of Education on grounds of disability discrimination. The Department of Education believes students who are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19 may be prevented from attending school when masks are not worn by all staff and students.

Many believe masking is still essential due to the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant. Cases in Oklahoma have plateaued after rising for about two months. Patients under 17 now make about 30.4 percent of active cases in the last 14 days, as opposed to 23.5 percent throughout the whole pandemic. Both Tulsa Public Schools and Jenks Public Schools will require masks for all staff and students, though Jenks’s mandate is temporary and has an opt-out provision to give exemptions on religious, medical or personal grounds.

On Sep. 1 the section of the law preventing mask mandates in school was suspended by a temporary injunction. The ruling was in response to a lawsuit raised by an association of parents and doctors concerned with the law. Oklahoma County District Judge Natalie Mai found the fact that the mask mandate ban applies only to public schools
at odds with legal regulations. Oddly, both Governor Stitt and Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister publicly praised the injunction, despite taking disparate stances on mask mandates. On Sep. 9, the Oklahoma Attorney General filed an appeal for this injunction in an attempt to revive the mask mandate ban.

The mask mandate debate is also highly related to the ongoing vaccine mandate debate. After President Biden announced employees of large companies must either get vaccinated or face weekly testing on Sep. 9, Governor Stitt fought back against the plan, claiming “as long as I am Governor, there will be no government vaccine mandates
in Oklahoma.”. The conflict may require a court ruling, though the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause dictates that federal law takes precedence over state law.

The University of Tulsa has not required mask wearing on its campus, indoors or outdoors. Interestingly, the portion of the law banning vaccine mandates applies to private institutions like TU, and was not struck down by the Sep. 1 ruling. This means a vaccine mandate at TU would potentially violate this law.

As of writing, TU has not responded to a request for comment on their future plans regarding mask and vaccine mandates. TU has broadly encouraged vaccination, offering prizes for reaching certain vaccination rates—which were not met—and forcing a rigid testing regimen on unvaccinated students. Masking has been highly encouraged, with the university citing the recommendation of the CDC.

Three weeks into this lax masking policy, cases have still remained low, surely due in part to TU’s increasing vaccination rate. As of Sep. 5, we have 20 active cases, as compared to 22 cases the week prior. Vaccines are safe, effective and are offered by the University through the Alexander Health Center at no cost to students.

Post Author: Justin Klopfer