Board Of Education Votes Unanimously To Fire 6 Oklahoma City Public Schools Teachers For Refusing To Wear Masks

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Oklahoma City Public Schools will require face masks beginning MondayOklahoma City Public Schools will require face masks for all students, teachers and staff, confronting a state law that prohibits mandates in schools.Addison Kliewer, Oklahoman

Six teachers who refused to wear masks have been fired from Oklahoma City Public Schools. 

The district Board of Education voted to terminate their employment after hearing testimony and asking questions during a hearing Wednesday evening. 

The board voted unanimously after hearing hours of testimony. The six board members present deliberated for almost two hours in executive session.

A group of supporters chanted "shame on you" after the board finalized its decision.

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Which Oklahoma City teachers were fired for not wearing masks?

Five of the teachers — Jesse Paxton, James Taylor, Grace Trick, Nelson Trick II and Jason Widener — were tenured educators.  

Paxton, Taylor and Widener all taught at Roosevelt Middle School. Grace and Nelson Trick, who are husband and wife, worked at Webster Middle School. 

A.B. “Branch” Hague was a certified educator at Capitol Hill Middle School in his first year of teaching. He had not yet reached tenured status, meaning the standard of cause to fire him is lower than that of tenured teachers. 

Superintendent Sean McDaniel recommended all six teachers be fired. He said the five who had tenure meet the threshold for termination because of willful neglect of duty and moral turpitude. 

All had refused to comply with a district requirement that students and staff wear masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.  

Students have the option to opt out of mask wearing for medical, religious or strong personal reasons.  

But, employees are only allowed a medical exemption. Each of the six teachers had requested exemptions for personal reasons and never requested a religious or medical accommodation. 

Each of these teachers “plain outright refused to wear a mask, repeatedly, constantly,” said Jessica Sherrill, the district’s general counsel. 

“Today while 4,878 Oklahoma City public school employees came to work and wore a mask and put students first, the six teachers here tonight decided to opt out of that obligation for our students and instead continued to put themselves first,” Sherrill said. 

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The five tenured teachers filed a lawsuit against Oklahoma City schools and McDaniel on Sept. 2.  

They asked that a judge deem the district’s mask policy unlawful, unenforceable and a violation of their rights. The plaintiffs also requested the district reinstate them and wipe their disciplinary records clean. The case is still pending in Oklahoma County District Court. 

The teachers will amend their lawsuit to include wrongful termination, said their attorney, Blake Sonne, the general counsel of Professional Oklahoma Educators. 

When given the opportunity to speak or issue written statements, the teachers said they viewed the mask mandate as an illegal decision by the district, one they didn’t want to participate in. 

“For me this has never been about the masks,” Taylor said. “This has always been about the rule of law.” 

Are school mask mandates illegal in Oklahoma?

Senate Bill 658, which took effect this year, prohibits public school boards from implementing mask mandates unless the governor issues a state of emergency for their district’s locality. Gov. Kevin Stitt has repeatedly said he will not give another emergency order for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Oklahoma City schools was the second school system to confront SB 658 and have its superintendent issue a mask requirement, following the Oklahoma City charter district Santa Fe South Schools

After a group of parents and the Oklahoma State Medical Association sued to overturn SB 658, Oklahoma County District Judge Natalie Mai issued a temporary court order Sept. 1 allowing school districts to require masks as long as students have the option to opt out. Mai's decision has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Another Oklahoma County district judge declined on Sept. 24 to temporarily stop the teachers' termination hearing and the school district's mask requirement.

After the Sept. 24 ruling, five of the teachers offered to wear masks if they could return to work, Sonne said.

The district refused.

"There comes a point where their defiance cannot be overlooked," Sherrill said.

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Judge pauses Oklahoma ban on mask mandates in schoolsOklahoma County District Court Judge Natalie Mai placed a temporary injunction on Senate Bill 658 on Wednesday.Addison Kliewer, Oklahoman

Grace Trick said she cared deeply about her students and the school district, where she graduated and her children attend. But, she disagreed with her superintendent's choice to skirt state law.

“When I saw a need, I was there,” she said. “And this is it? This is the end? This is what is best for students?” 

Sonne, the teachers' attorney, argued McDaniel had no legal authority to require mask wearing. 

None of the tenured teachers have faced disciplinary action before, Sonne said during the hearing. 

“You have five teachers that are good teachers,” Sonne said. “Nowhere is there a disciplinary action. Nowhere is there a negative comment about them in their file. And we’re in a teacher shortage, and you’re going to fire teachers for this? Why?” 

McDaniel announced a mask requirement Aug. 13, only days after the 2021-22 school year began. The superintendent said mask wearing was necessary to curb COVID-19 transmissions and exposures in Oklahoma City schools. 

The district started the first week of school with four positive cases of the virus. That number exploded to 118 within three days.  

By the end of the week, McDaniel announced a mask requirement and said SB 658 did not prevent him from doing so. The law prohibits school boards from requiring mask wearing, but it doesn’t mention superintendents, he said. 

The six teachers facing termination all showed up to work Aug. 16, the first day the requirement took effect, refusing to wear masks. All were sent home on paid suspension.  

Nine days later, McDaniel recommended they be fired. 

“When I became aware clearly that these teachers were unwilling to do that, to take this next step to wear a mask, knowing that it would reduce the risk of exposure to COVID, that’s what prompted me to say they have violated the standards of performance and conduct of teaching,” McDaniel said. “They have crossed what I believe to be statutory lines and expectations for our educators.” 

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None are members of the district's collective bargaining union for educators, the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, and none filed a grievance with the district.

Sonne said it was “insulting” to think the teachers’ decision to follow SB 658 amounted to moral turpitude, which he said commonly applies to criminal behavior. 

The superintendent had no grounds to take action that, under state law, his school board was prohibited from making, Sonne said. 

“It’s the rule of law,” he said. “If you challenge a law, you challenge it the appropriate way.  

“What you don’t do is decide to play semantics with language or your role as executive officer.” 

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the teachers reportedly offered to wear masks if they could return to work after a Sept. 24 ruling in Oklahoma County District Court, not after a Sept. 1 court order from district Judge Natalie Mai.

Reporter Nuria Martinez-Keel covers K-12 and higher education throughout the state of Oklahoma. Have a story idea for Nuria? She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @NuriaMKeel. Support Nuria’s work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.

Source : https://www.hawkcentral.com/story/news/education/2021/11/03/oklahoma-city-schools-fires-6-teachers-who-refused-wear-masks/6277606001/

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