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U.S. Department of Education announces investigation into Oklahoma Department of Education, cites school mask mandate ban

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Joy Hofmeister

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights announced an investigation on the Oklahoma State Department of Education's ban on mask mandates in a letter to Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. 

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announced an investigation Monday into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as a result of state law which prevents schools and school districts from implementing mask mandates. 

The investigation, detailed in an emailed letter from the office’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne Goldberg, will look into whether Oklahoma schools have considered or met the needs of students with disabilities, and given students an opportunity to safely return to in-person school. Goldberg's outreach was directed to Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. 

Goldberg noted that the office has yet to decide whether Oklahoma has violated the Department of Education’s laws, and it will serve as a “neutral fact finder” during the investigation before reaching a determination.

“OCR is concerned that Oklahoma’s restriction on schools and school districts from putting masking requirements in place may be preventing schools in Oklahoma from meeting their legal obligations not to discriminate based on disability and from providing an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19,” Goldberg wrote.

The letter referenced SB 658, a bill authored by Sen. Rob Standrige (R-Norman), which prevents certain entities from singling out unvaccinated individuals in mask and vaccine mandates. OU has cited SB 658 as the reasoning behind only “strongly encouraging” masking.

The bill’s covered entities include a board of education of a public or technology center school district, the board of regents of an institution within the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, the governing board of a private postsecondary educational institution, the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and the State Board of Education or Career and Technology.

OU also cited Gov. Kevin Stitt's Executive Order 2021-16which prevents all state agencies from requiring vaccinations or mandating masks, in its mask policy. 

According to the letter, OCR enforces Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, both federal laws that protect students with disabilities from being discriminated against by any public entities, including public schools, regardless of whether they receive federal funding, according to the letter. 

“Specifically, OCR will examine whether, in light of Oklahoma’s prohibition on local school districts and schools from requiring the use of masks on school property and during in-person school-sponsored activities, the Oklahoma State Department of Education may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the individual educational needs of students with disabilities or otherwise enabling discrimination based on disability in violation of Section 504 and Title II,” Goldberg wrote. 

The Office of Civil Rights will be in contact with the Oklahoma State Department of Education officials for information deemed necessary for the investigation, and it hopes for a prompt resolution, according to the letter.

“OCR’s Case Processing Manual provides several ways for this investigation to be resolved, including an option to reach a voluntary resolution agreement prior to the completion of an investigation,” Goldberg wrote. “If the Oklahoma State Department of Education expresses an interest in resolving the investigation in this way and OCR determines this form of resolution is appropriate based on the investigation, we will follow the steps set out in Section 302 of the Case Processing Manual.” 

The office also opened investigations into Iowa, South Caroline, Utah and Tennessee, stating the same concerns in letters to each state’s department of education, according to the Washington Post. The investigation in Oklahoma will be conducted by its Kansas City office.

The Daily reached out to OU News but hadn’t received a response at the time of publication. This article will be updated as more information is released.

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