On Wednesday, six Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) teachers were fired for refusing to comply with the district’s mask mandate. OKCPS Superintendent Sean McDaniel recommended their termination because he considered their actions willful neglect of duty and moral turpitude (the threshold needed to fire tenured teachers).

These firings are problematic for multiple reasons. First, as written in a previous 1889 blog, the OKCPS mask mandate was (and still is) clearly illegal. Last session, the legislature passed SB 658, which bars school boards from implementing mask mandates in schools (among other things). Superintendent McDaniel claimed power to implement a mask mandate in the OKCPS district because the law only specifically mentioned school boards and not superintendents.

This contention is absurd. In Oklahoma, a superintendent serves at the will of the school board and acts on their behalf. Section 5-106 of Title 70 states that “…the superintendent of schools appointed and employed by the board shall be the executive officer of the board and shall perform duties as the board directs.” So, not only does the superintendent serve at the will of the board and act on their behalf, he is considered the executive officer of the board. As written, SB 658 clearly applies to Superintendent McDaniel. However, thanks to the actions of superintendents like McDaniel, the legislature may need to consider refining the language to say something like: “…no school board, or their agent, may….”

Second, and I’m really beating a dead horse here, the efficacy of masks has been overblown. As 1889 Institute has written previously, masks do not significantly increase safety and are poor protection from the virus. Cloth masks, paper masks, and surgical masks are typically not used correctly or worn properly. Even if worn properly, the evidence is mixed that they provide any significant benefit. However, there is ample evidence that N-95 masks offer significant protection to the wearer (1889 previously suggested aggressively shielding the vulnerable with N-95s while allowing others to resume normal routines). Maybe instead of forcing illegal mask mandates on everyone in their district, superintendents like McDaniel should ensure a ready supply of N-95s for those “at-risk” students or teachers, those who are immunocompromised, have comorbidities, or are just extremely cautious about the virus. This seems like a much more effective, and less tyrannical, way to try to protect your district.

In reality, this isn’t about protecting kids or teachers, and it certainly isn’t about ensuring every child in the OKPCS district gets a quality education. While superintendent McDaniel is busy firing teachers (in the midst a teacher shortage) for disobeying his illegal mask mandate, the OKCPS district is falling well short of anything resembling a quality education. According to a recent article from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA), 90 percent of students are performing below grade level in all subjects. In addition, “State tests showed 67 percent of students were more than one year behind. Testing also showed 91 percent of Oklahoma City’s third-grade students were below grade level in English with 72 percent more than one grade level behind.”

No, this isn’t about the kids. This is about power and control. Time and again throughout this pandemic we have witnessed the arrogance of those in power – they are the experts. They know what’s best for you and for everyone else, and if you dare to contradict them in any way you will be brought to heel. There is no room for nuance, individual decision-making, or those pesky personal freedoms, you either do as they say or you suffer the consequences. In the case of the six OKCPS teachers, it cost them their jobs. The wrong people lost their jobs on Wednesday. Perhaps next April, the right people will lose their seats.

Tyler Williamson is a Research Associate at 1889 Institute and can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.