The winding path of SB 658 (Capitol Update)

It appears from a brief search of various public school websites that classes will begin anywhere from one to three weeks from now. With the spiking COVID cases and hospitalizations, I can only imagine the anxiety of school board members and school administrators about how to make school safe. We are better off in many ways than August 2020. A lot of people, not including children under 12, are protected by vaccination. Doctors know better how to treat the seriously ill, and treatment drugs are more widely available. 

But some things are worse. Despite the vaccine’s availability, a lot of people are unvaccinated. The delta variant is more transmissible, and communities are seeing rising case numbers among children as well as adults. So far there is not enough evidence to know, but anecdotally, it appears the delta variant is no more severe than other variants. But it’s worrisome that more children are getting the disease, which would mean more children will get seriously ill. 

Something that’s better or worse than last year, depending on your perspective, is the passage and signing of Senate Bill 658 last week of session. It’s another of those bills that radically changed as it went through the process. SB 658 started as an innocuous “clean up” bill pre-filed by Sen. Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, to transfer certain school immunization responsibilities from the Board of Health to the Commissioner. This matches the new structure of state government giving the governor direct control of some state agencies.

SB 658 passed the Senate on March 4 unchanged and went to the House. That’s when the changes began. The bill was first assigned to the Common Education Committee but was later withdrawn and assigned to the Public Health Committee. A committee substitute was filed in the Public Health Committee providing that a public or technology school district may only implement a mask mandate after consultation with the local health department within whose jurisdiction the district is located. Sen. Dahm relinquished authorship of the bill and Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, signed on as author.

Later, a House floor substitute was filed requiring any mask mandate by a public or technology school district be reconsidered at each board meeting. It also provided that citizens within the district could challenge the mandate based on “relevant studies” showing possible significant adverse effects as a result of wearing a mask; the wearing of the mask is not effective; or there is a significant risk of substantial harm from wearing the mask. This is the form of the bill that passed the House by a vote of 64-32. The Senate rejected the House amendments and the bill went to conference committee.

The final bill, now law, added private schools and public and private higher education institutions, along with a prohibition against requiring vaccines for admission. As the final bill came out of the conference committee and passed, it provides that no public or private school, technology center, or public or private institution of higher education can require a COVID-19 vaccination or implement a mask mandate as a requirement for admission. A public or technology school district may implement a mask mandate only after consultation with the local health department and only if there is a declaration of an emergency by the governor. Gov. Stitt has already stated he will not declare an emergency. The final bill passed the Senate 38-8 and the House 76-18. 

Some school administrators and boards may be relieved they don’t have to face vaccination and mask mandate issues. But they may face even more difficult, and unpopular, decisions about closing school buildings and virtual learning.  


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

2 thoughts on “The winding path of SB 658 (Capitol Update)

  1. Does this law state that Districts are prohibited from mandating masks only for students or for students, teachers and staff?? There seems to be some confusion.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.