OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma judge on Wednesday said she will temporarily block a state law banning public school mask mandates, but students or their parents can opt out of the requirement if they choose.
Judge Natalie Mai said she will issue a temporary injunction that will go into effect next week when she issues a written order detailing her ruling. Mai said she is blocking the law because it applies only to public, not private, schools and that schools adopting a mask mandate must provide an option for parents or students to opt out of the requirement.
The ruling drew praise from Gov. Kevin Stitt, who signed the law and opposes mask mandates without exemptions, and Dr. Mary Clarke, president of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, which joined the lawsuit brought by four parents who oppose the law.
“This is a victory for parental choice, personal responsibility and the rule of law," Stitt said in a statement.
Clarke said she was also pleased with the ruling.
“This is just a first step in ensuring our schools maintain local control and can choose the best path for their students, faculty and staff," Clarke said in a statement.
“While not included in SB 658, some businesses’ mitigation efforts such as mask and vaccine requirements have been under fire," Clarke said. “Our stance is that in order to promote a healthy environment, a business should be able to develop rules that keep their employees safe without interference from state government.”
The U.S. Department of Education on Monday announced an investigation into Oklahoma and four other Republican-led states — Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah — that banned or limited mask requirements in schools. The department said the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.
Other states previously outlawed mask mandates, but the policies were overturned by courts or are not being enforced, including in Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health reported 2,538 new virus cases on Wednesday and a seven-day daily average of 2,796 new cases, which was up from an average of 2,187 during the seven-day period that ended Aug. 16. The department reported that 441 people were in intensive care units, which was more than double the 216 on Aug. 2.
The four major hospitals in Oklahoma City — Integris, Mercy, SSM Health and OU Health — reported Wednesday that they were treating 524 COVID-19 patients and no ICU beds available for more. The health department reported Wednesday that there were 25 ICU beds, or 7.6% of the total, available in the city among other hospitals.
Also Wednesday, Oklahoma Department of Human Services director Justin Brown said the agency's offices would be open to customers by appointment only because of the rising virus case numbers.
The agency provides services to low-income residents, including financial assistance and the state's Medicaid program.