OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The superintendent of a public charter school in Oklahoma City said Wednesday that students and staff must begin wearing masks indoors, defying a new state law that prohibits such a mandate.
Superintendent Chris Brewster at Santa Fe South Schools, a 3,500-student, pre-K through 12 district in south Oklahoma City, also said in a letter on the district's website that he is exploring the possibility of requiring a vaccine for employment at the school.
“Among many reasons for requiring masks is that we have a number of immune-compromised students and staff who must be protected," Brewster wrote. “We even have several of our most precious ones, those on (individualized education plans) and the very youngest, who have very little personal protection against the virus.
“If this decision keeps a single member of our community from suffering serious health issues or death, it is worth it a thousand times over."
Brewster didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the district's decision.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a law earlier this year prohibiting public schools, technology centers, and colleges and universities from requiring vaccinations or masks unless the state has declared an emergency.
Stitt ended Oklahoma's emergency declaration in May and hasn't indicated any plans to reinstate it, although the Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said she plans to meet with Stitt this week to discuss reinstating the emergency declaration. Stitt's office didn't immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment on whether he's reconsidering the declaration.
While many districts have indicated they expect students and staff to wear masks on campus, Santa Fe South is the first in Oklahoma to require masks. Tulsa Public Schools planned an emergency meeting Wednesday night to consider possible litigation against the governor over the mask prohibition.
Similar defiance to mask laws is popping up in other red states that have imposed such bans, particularly in blue-leaning urban areas, including Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Broward County, Florida.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma's COVID-19 numbers have continued to climb in recent weeks. The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported COVID-19 hospitalizations in Oklahoma topped 1,000 Wednesday for the first time since early February.
There were 2,199 new cases of the coronavirus with 1,102 people hospitalized and 294 under intensive care, the department reported. The seven-day average of 2,031 new cases daily was up from 1,197 on July 26.
State health officials have said a shortage of nurses and the rising number of hospitalizations are pushing Oklahoma hospitals toward their capacity limits as COVID-19 cases surge from the highly contagious delta variant and a low COVID-19 vaccination rate.
Oklahoma ranked seventh nationally in the number of new cases per 100,000 with 653.7, according to Johns Hopkins University research data. Meantime, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 41% of Oklahomans were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, compared to a national average of 49.9%. The CDC report showed almost half of Oklahomans had received at least one vaccine dose.
This story has been corrected to show Oklahoma ranks seventh nationally in the number of new cases per 100,000 people, not per capita.