Unaffected by school mask mandate ban, Oak Hall continues implementing COVID-19 guidelines

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

Classrooms across Oklahoma have reopened for a new academic year as the high profile debate over masks and vaccines dictates what efforts school districts can take to mitigate COVID-19. While schools, lawmakers and even a state medical association find ways to challenge a law preventing schools from mandating masks on campus, a few schools find themselves outside the purview of public education. 

Oak Hall Episcopal School Headmaster Dr. Ken Willy said that his campus of pre-K through eighth-grade students will continue implementing recommendations from state health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this school year. Some of that guidance has evolved as the pandemic stretches into a third school year but Willy said his school will again require masks on campus as this school year begins. 

“We wanted to be data-driven, not just what my personal thoughts are or another teacher’s personal thoughts, but really what the data’s showing us,” Willy said on Thursday. 

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A sign welcomes students back to Oak Hall Episcopal School Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021. Private schools like Oak Hall are not subject to SB658 which prevents school boards from implementing mask mandates. The pre-K through eighth-grade school will again require masks of staff, students and visitors this year.

Oak Hall exempt from COVID mask mandate ban

Oak Hall is one of the few schools in southern Oklahoma that is not subject to SB658, a state law signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in May that prohibits school boards from implementing mask or COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Most public schools in the state – and all in Carter County – do not have mask mandates although some are looking for ways to sidestep the law. 

Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, said an Oklahoma City school district, Santa Fe South Schools, is challenging the law by having a superintendent, not the school board, mandate masks. She voted in favor of the law and said similar attempts by principals or teachers at any district to require masks in individual school buildings or classrooms is still illegal. 

“Specifically that’s the way they’ve gotten around it, they’re saying that the school board did not dictate it,” Townley said on Thursday. “They are 100% breaking the law.” 

Oklahoma schools defy state COVID mask mandate ban

According to The Oklahoman, Santa Fe South became the first district in the state to challenge the legislation as the district of about 3,500 students has already seen an excessive number of absences and 21 teachers under quarantine by last week. The newspaper reported Oklahoma City Public Schools soon followed suit to disregard the law for a mask mandate after over 100 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded among students and staff in less than a week. 

Democrats in the Oklahoma House last week said they are already working on legislation to overturn SB658, which also affects state colleges and career tech facilities, during a special session of the legislature. Along with two school districts challenging the law, the Oklahoma State Medical Association last week filed a lawsuit to stop enforcement of the ban.  

More:Oklahoma lawsuit seeks to overturn ban on school mask mandates

“This is not a political stance; it is about public health and common sense,” said OSMA President Dr. Mary Clarke in a statement. “If schools can send students home for a lice infection, they should have the latitude and ability to issue a mask mandate.” 

The legislation also prevents schools from implementing “vaccine passports,” or documentation of vaccination against COVID-19, but keeps longstanding provisions requiring students receive vaccines for “diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, haemophilus influenzae type B (HIB), measles (rubeola), rubella, poliomyelitis, varicella, and hepatitis A.” 

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Unlike bans on mask mandates or “vaccine passports,” existing law that requires vaccinations against the nine listed diseases pertains to all schools in Oklahoma whether public or private. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, many of the vaccines must be administered to children younger than 5-years-old.  

Under the emergency use authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for three COVID-19 vaccines, only one manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech has been approved for children 12 and older. No vaccines against COVID-19 have been approved for younger children. 

Willy said that Oak Hall will not require teachers be vaccinated against the disease and acknowledged that only a handful of his students are even eligible. While he declined to say exactly how many staff members have received a COVID-19 vaccine due to privacy concerns, Willy said he is extremely confident that teachers are making the best choices to keep classroom doors open. 

“Teachers are vaccinated because that’s their choice to do that, but also they see it for the greater good. If you want to stay in-person, if you don’t want to be Zooming all the time, then that’s a small price to pay,” said Willy.

As Oak Hall adds COVID rules, lawmakers advocate for parent choice 

As the school year progresses and administrators monitor the pandemic on their respective campuses, Willy and other private schools in Oklahoma still have more latitude to exercise what is recommended and what is required of students and staff. Lawmakers, on the other hand, want individual parents and families to directly dictate how schools manage COVID-19. 

“I am a strong supporter in believing that it should be a parental issue, not a school board issue. No one is forcing anyone to not mask up their children if they would care to mask up their children,” said Townley.  

“I just don’t believe the school board should just say across the board that everyone should wear a mask,” she said. 

Oak Hall is accredited by the Southwestern Association of Episcopal Schools and the Oklahoma Private School Accreditation Commission, and Willy said that those groups have allowed individual schools to implement pandemic protocols that are best for the individual site. He could not say that every parent has been entirely supportive of the move by Oak Hall to require masks but was fairly certain that parents, students and teachers all want in-person learning. 

“I think all parents understand being in person is the best way. Does everybody agree on exactly how to do it? No, but I don’t think you’d find a parent who said ‘I want to Zoom all year for education,’” said Willy. 

Delta variant leads to surge in COVID cases

The contention around mandates for some revolves around the efficacy of masks and vaccines in stopping the spread of COVID-19. Townley said she was disappointed by the volume of vaccine promotions to only learn that breakthrough cases among the vaccinated are being recorded. 

“Now we’re finding out the shot’s not working because you can be a carrier of the virus whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated. The only thing that vaccination is preventing so far is death, which is a good thing but it’s not preventing spread,” she said. 

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According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, vaccinated people have been infected with the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 albeit with smaller viral loads. 

“Vaccines remain highly effective at preventing severe disease, breakthrough infections and disease among vaccinated individuals remain uncommon, and most of the new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are among unvaccinated people,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja with Johns Hopkins University. 

“The vaccines are designed to stop serious disease, hospitalization, and death and they are doing that to an extremely high degree — even against the delta variant.” 

More:Local health care again pressured by COVID-19 surge

Willy understands that no one mitigation effort will completely stop the spread of COVID-19. Instead, his board of trustees and school’s COVID-19 task force will continue to monitor local epidemiological trends along with evolving guidance from state and federal health authorities.

“I think the important thing I would say is vaccinations are not 100% perfect. Masks are not 100% perfect. We want to have black-and-white, ‘if I do this then this will be the consequence and I’ll be safe.’ For us, our understanding is by being vaccinated and wearing a mask, we will be safer,” said Willy.  

Because in order to keep students in the classroom, that classroom must be safe. 

“If we’re safer we have more chance to be together.”