- By Lenzy Krehbiel Burton
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — With COVID-19 case numbers on a steady increase across northeastern Oklahoma, two schools operated by the Cherokee Nation will be starting the school year with quieter campuses.
A tribally-run school under the Bureau of Indian Education umbrella, Sequoyah High School has about 350 students who are scheduled to begin classes on Aug. 24. When the school year does start, no more than 25 percent of the student body will be on campus on any given day.
Freshmen will attend on Mondays, sophomores on Tuesdays, juniors on Wednesdays, and seniors on Thursdays. Students will all use distance learning on Fridays and all other days that are not in their scheduled rotation.
In-person instruction days at Sequoyah will be primarily geared toward preparing students for virtual learning, with the potential for total virtual learning for all students as public health concerns dictate.
The school is also offering an all-virtual option. Families that choose that route must commit to at least one semester of online instruction.
“Delivering education under the circumstances of the worst public health crisis in generations has its challenges, and schools across the state are making the best decisions for their students and communities, just as we are,” Cherokee Nation Chief of Staff Todd Enlow said. “This plan is formed by our Cherokee Nation government office’s reopening plan that has worked extremely well for our employees keeping COVID-19 cases from spreading while continuing operations. It’s based off wisdom and experience and will bode well for our student and teacher safety as well.”
Enlow added: “We will, of course, monitor the spread of the virus and adapt our return to school plans as we have all of our COVID-19 response plans at Cherokee Nation: using science, facts and compassion as our guide.”
Along with allowing fewer students on campus at any given time, the school has temporarily suspended all extracurricular activities where social distancing cannot be guaranteed at all times, including sports and marching band, much to the chagrin of rising sophomore percussionist Patrick Bointy.
“I’m not really looking forward to this fall,” he said.
Bointy’s mother, Kiowa Tribal citizen Nicole Walls, is a dental hygienist. Between her job and her husband’s position with the post office, she readily admits both Patrick and his younger sister are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. With that in mind, her family chose the distance learning route in an effort to avoid the possibility of any further spread by sending the children to school in person this fall.
“We are going to re-evaluate our decision in the spring, but I’m confident in our choice,” she said. “I assumed Patrick would be upset, but he has been open to it and understands that we don’t want them to get sick.”
In order to accommodate having Bointy and his younger sister at home doing distance learning through Sequoyah and Hulbert Public Schools, respectively, Walls’s mother is moving from California to Cherokee County to help out. Bointy’s room is also getting rearranged to set up dual monitors to allow him to better see his classmates and teachers during lessons via Zoom.
“Both of our children are dedicated to their education,” Walls said. “I’m not worried about how they’re going to do academically. We are going to make this work.”
Meanwhile, the Cherokee Nation’s charter immersion school will start the year entirely in distance learning for at least nine weeks in an effort to protect the elders who teach at the school. The tribe lost 13 fluent Cherokee speakers in the month of July alone.
Within a 30-day window across July and early August, the number of positive COVID-19 cases within the Cherokee Nation more than tripled, rising from 219 to 684. Although masks are required at all Cherokee Nation facilities, the tribe still had to temporarily close both its child development center in Tahlequah, Okla. and its housing authority office in nearby Stilwell, Okla. due to employees testing positive.
Data collected by Cherokee Nation Public Health show that Cherokee citizens who fail to follow proper social distancing guidance and who are not wearing masks are coming into contact with COVID-19 in specific locations. These include faith-based activities; family gatherings including birthday parties, weddings and funerals; restaurants, bars and community dinners; student activities such as sporting events, proms and graduations; and car-pooling and workplace settings.
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