Noble Public Schools implemented a mask mandate last Tuesday to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, a decision that came as a shock to some but was easy for the superintendent to make.
Masking in schools regardless of vaccination status is recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention due to the rise in new COVID-19 cases. This was not possible in Oklahoma due to Senate Bill 658, which prohibited school boards from implementing mask mandates in schools.
But after an injunction of the law issued by an Oklahoma County district judge earlier in September, schools can now legally mandate masks with an opt-out provision.
This decision to implement a mandate has been met with mixed reactions from parents and staff. NPS superintendent Frank Solomon said some parents praised his decision and others personally attacked him for it.
“The reaction has been mostly positive, but there’s always some negative feedback, and that’s to be expected,” he said. “There’s been personal attacks, but that’s just part of the job and what goes with it. I just stand there and take it.”
Cleveland County’s COVID-19 numbers have increased in recent weeks, reporting 1,361 new cases last week, the highest since May of this year, according to Oklahoma Department of Health records.
Solomon and the board have stuck to this decision despite pushback Monday night at the school district’s board meeting. Eight people signed up to speak against the mandate Monday.
“I get attacked, just because I don’t wear a mask half the time by people who wear masks. It is irritating to have people call me an anti-vaxxer,” said Noble parent Randall Christian, who spoke at the Monday meeting. Christian at the meeting called the mandate “a form of discrimination.”
Solomon said implementing a mask mandate was not a difficult decision.
He also said it’s one he would have made at the beginning of the year had it not been for the senate bill.
But after the injunction, Solomon felt it was the right time to implement a mandate, he said.
“We do everything for the safety and protection of our students and staff, and I just felt like it was in the best interest to make this decision at this time while allowing for those that do not wish to comply with the opt out provision,” he said. “We would not have implemented it [without the injunction] because we believe in following the law.”
The district had a mask mandate for all of the 2020-2021 school year.
Some parents were hoping they would implement one this year but were disheartened when the legislature barred districts from implementing mandates.
Kevin Bryant, a father of four children, three of whom attend Noble High School, said one of his children decided to go back in-person for his senior year.
The others wanted to continue remote learning due to the rise in COVID cases and the district’s hands tied with the amount of mitigation efforts they could implement, he said.
“We understood that our oldest son as a senior really wanted to have that senior experience, or he would have gone ahead and stayed at home as well and did virtual with our other two kids,” Bryant said. “The other two, their concern was with the breakthrough cases and then the rise of cases and the fact that kids were starting to get infected, three of our four boys have an autoimmune disorder. They just felt like it was better to stay at home, go ahead and do virtual.”
All his children are vaccinated, Bryant said, but with autoimmune disorders in their family and the rise of breakthrough cases, going to school with little mitigation efforts was not a risk they were willing to take.
One thing that does frustrate him is the ability for parents to opt out of the mask mandate, he said.
“All it required to opt out was if you had a religious issue with it or a medical issue that you didn’t have to prove or if you had a strong personal belief against masks, that you could sign this form and your kid doesn’t have to wear a mask,” Bryant said. “I mean, that to me that’s not a mask mandate — that is a mask recommendation.”
The main reason for opt-outs seems to stem from the politicalization of masks in Oklahoma and across the country, Bryant said. Senate Bill 658 passed on a party line vote and was praised by Republicans as a win for individual freedoms.
In Noble, 67% of voters cast their ballot for former President Donald Trump in 2020.
“To me, masks have become a political stance, with politicians trying to score points by using (our kids), and the support that they get from that side of it,” Bryant said.
Michelle Wheat, a mother of two children who attend Noble Public Schools, said she was relieved to see the district mandate masks. Her 12 year-old daughter got her first dose of the vaccine on Aug. 3 — her 12th birthday — but was unable to be fully vaccinated by the time school came around.
“It’s something I’ve been advocating for since the beginning of school and it’s something I’ve been highly concerned about,” she said.
Wheat said she was very surprised when NPS decided to implement a mask mandate, especially when Norman Public Schools, their neighboring and more progressive school district, had yet to implement anything like it.
“I was surprised, just because we are a smaller district and it’s divided on the support of masks,” she said. “There’s some support for masks and there’s support against masks… But just from being in the Noble School District for the past five years I really had faith in the administration that they would make the right decision.”
Prior to the Monday meeting, Solomon said three of the nurses in the school district had resigned, two of whom cited how parents treated them while trying to implement COVID mitigation efforts.
“They’re getting attacked like we all are solely for trying to keep kids safe,” Solomon said.
Patrick Regio, a Noble resident, said he isn’t against masks or vaccinations — he’s just against mandating them. He said the mandate “is going to cause a lot of division in the community.”
“Non-masking people or those who wanted their children to not wear a mask were required to fill out a paper. However, people who were going to allow their children to wear a mask didn’t have to do anything. So I think some thought might be given to that, especially moving forward in the future when we have things come up like this. There should be more equal treatment for everybody,” Regio said.
Christian said last year, Noble police escorted him off school property because he refused to wear a mask when he tried to meet with a principal. He said this made him fear for his life.
“Because I didn’t wear a mask, and walked into an open door and asked to talk to a principal, I had Noble PD called on me,” he said. “Because of this, my life could have been put in danger if those cops showed up half cocked wanting to basically treat me as a combatant.”
The mandate will stay in place unless acted upon by the board or superintendent.
Parents will have the opportunity to opt out if they feel it necessary.