OKLAHOMA CITY -- An Oklahoma judge 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 mask mandates must provide options 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 filed 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 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 Monday that they had no ICU beds available, or none for covid-19 patients. The health department reported Wednesday that there were 25 ICU beds, or 7.6% of the total, available in the city.
A central Texas school district is temporarily closing after two teachers died of covid-19 in the same week, while parents and legislators in the state continue to clash over mask mandates in classrooms.
Officials with the Connally Independent School District, north of Waco, said its five suburban schools will be closed until after the Labor Day holiday following the covid-19 death Saturday of Natalia Chansler, 41, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at Connally Junior High School. Her death came just days after 59-year-old David "Andy" McCormick, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Connally Junior High, died of covid-19 on Aug. 24, the district said.
"We are very heartbroken," Jill Bottelberghe, the district's assistant superintendent of human resources, told the Waco Tribune-Herald, adding, "It is very devastating as far as the students, the staff and the community as a whole."
It is unclear whether either teacher was vaccinated.
The district does not mandate that students or teachers wear masks, following an executive order by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mandates on face coverings in schools that is being challenged in court and defied by districts and counties statewide. The Connally district has recommended in its back-to-school guidelines that masks be worn in schools.
Officials with the school district did not immediately return requests for comment Wednesday. In a notice to parents this week, Connally Superintendent Wesley Holt said the closure would "provide those who are positive with the virus or exposed to others with the virus the time to isolate and recover." While the number of coronavirus cases in the school district of less than 2,500 students was not specified, the district acknowledged to local media that there had been at least 51 confirmed infections at Connally Junior High alone since classes started Aug. 18.
"This closure will also allow time for deep cleaning and sanitizing of all CISD facilities," Holt said in an email to parents.
The news comes as the battle over mask mandates in schools has intensified in recent weeks in Texas, where the coronavirus has spiked amid the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant. The Texas Supreme Court denied Abbott's request last month to block temporary restraining orders on his ban on mask mandates, allowing schools that are requiring face coverings in defiance of the state to proceed.
Mike Morath, commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, which suspended enforcement of Abbott's ban in the state's public school systems because of several ongoing court challenges, said Tuesday that the issue of whether districts can enforce mask mandates must be settled in court.
"This issue has a lot of folks fired up," he told KXAS.
Surging infections and hospitalizations in Texas have left many parents worried about sending their children back into classrooms where others are not masked and could transmit the virus.
The state has averaged more than 15,700 new coronavirus cases a day in the past week, according to data compiled by The Washington Post. The figure accounts for about 10% of the new cases nationally in the past week, and Texas is second only to Florida for most daily infections. There are close to 14,500 people hospitalized with covid-19, with 3,860 in intensive care units -- the most in the nation.
In McLennan County, which includes Waco and the Connally school district, health officials reported 263 new cases Tuesday, as well as 11 deaths. The county's seven-day average for new coronavirus cases is now the highest it has been at any point of the pandemic. County data shows that 45% of the population is fully vaccinated, lower than the 47% vaccination rate across Texas.
As school districts have been hit by the latest surge, parents have grown angry at Abbott and educators.
Michelle Woodward told CNN that she felt "rage" after learning her daughter was infected while attending school in Humble, Texas, a Houston suburb. Terri Gurganious, whose daughter, Brennah, was placed on a ventilator last week at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, wrote on Facebook that she believes her child contracted the virus at school in Buna, in east Texas.
"If we kept our kids home and not sending exposed kids or faculty to school this wouldn't have happened," she wrote.
A similar scenario has played out in central Texas schools. The Axtell Independent School District announced Tuesday that it was closing for four days because of 45 active coronavirus cases at the junior high school and high school, as well as five cases at the elementary school.
The Waco Independent School District began a mask mandate this week -- a move that was praised by Farley Verner, the local health authority for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District.
"Universal masking in the school setting will be expected to significantly reduce the risk of in-school transmission, school outbreaks and school closures," Verner wrote in a statement.
In the Connally district, McCormick, the seventh-grade social studies teacher, was last on campus Aug. 18 and died six days later. Chansler tested positive for the virus one day after McCormick's death.
Bottelberghe said the district has "not found any correlation" between the two deaths. The district began contact tracing after Chansler's positive test and gave students and teachers the option to quarantine if they had potentially been exposed, according to the Tribune-Herald. The entire staff at the junior high was tested between Sunday and Monday, Bottelberghe said.
The district announced Tuesday that it was making drive-thru coronavirus testing available at Connally High School for staffers, students and families. Holt wrote to parents that the district was "focused on measures to take care of our students and staff."
Even with school closing for a week, Connally High School football coach Terry Gerik said the team was still scheduled to play its game Friday night, the AP reported.
FRANCE BOOSTER SHOTS
France on Wednesday started administering booster shots of covid-19 vaccine to people over age 65 and those with underlying health conditions as the delta variant spreads in the country.
France is the first big EU country to introduce widespread booster shots, and several other European countries are expected to follow suit.
Many countries are still struggling to administer first doses of covid-19 vaccines, and the World Health Organization had called for a moratorium on boosters and also urged governments to donate vaccines to needy countries.
People in France can get the shot on condition a minimum six-month period has passed since they got fully vaccinated with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Those who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson jab can get a booster shot of Pfizer or Moderna at least four weeks after they first got vaccinated.
In nursing homes, a nationwide booster campaign starts Sept. 12. About 18 million people are estimated to be eligible for the booster shot, according to the Health Ministry.
Lucien Slama, a 90-year-old retired researcher, said he was "absolutely not" afraid to get the shot Wednesday at a pharmacy in Paris.
"It's my third injection, and I remember the other two that caused me no issues at all," he said. "When you see hospitalizations and the damages [covid-19] does, in the short and in the long run, what's a jab every year or every six months? What does it matter?"
The booster shot was already available in France for some particularly vulnerable people, like transplant recipients and others with weakened immune systems.
The French government so far has made no decision regarding the potential extension of the campaign to the whole population.
Almost 44 million people, or 65.6% of the French population, are fully vaccinated.
SCHOOL IN INDIA
More students in India will be able to step inside a classroom for the first time in nearly 18 months Wednesday, as authorities gave the green light to partially reopen more schools despite apprehension from some parents and signs that infections are picking up again.
Schools and colleges in at least six more states are reopening in a gradual manner with health measures in place throughout September. In New Delhi, all staffers must be vaccinated and class sizes will be capped at 50% with staggered seating and sanitized desks.
In the capital only students in grades nine through 12 will be allowed to attend at first, though it is not compulsory. Some parents say they will be holding their children back, including Nalini Chauhan, who lost her husband to the coronavirus last year.
"That trauma is there for us and that is what stops me from going out. We don't go to malls. We don't go shopping. So why schools now?" she said.
Life has been slowly returning to normal in India after the trauma of a coronavirus surge earlier this year ground life in the country to a halt, sickened tens of millions, and left hundreds of thousands dead. A number of states returned last month to in person learning for some age groups.
Daily new infections have fallen sharply since their peak of more than 400,000 in May. But on Saturday, India recorded 46,000 new cases, the highest in nearly two months.
The uptick has raised questions over reopening schools, with some warning against it. Others say the virus risk to children remains low and opening schools is urgent for poorer students who lack access to the internet, making online learning nearly impossible.
Online education remains a privilege in India, where only one in four children have access to the internet and digital devices, according to UNICEF.
"The simple answer is there is never a right time to do anything during a pandemic," said Jacob John, professor of community medicine at Christian Medical College, Vellore. "There is a risk, but life has to go on -- and you can't go on without schools."
Not all are as confident. Toshi Kishore Srivastava said she would wait before sending her son back to first grade.
"The doctors are predicting the third wave, and in this scenario sending children to schools could prove detrimental," she said.
Information for this article was contributed by Ken Miller, Alexander Turnbull, Sylvie Corbet, Krutika Pathi, Shonal Ganguly, Chonchui Ngashangva and Biswajeet Banerjee of The Associated Press; and by Timothy Bella of The Washington Post.