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Local & Regional

Cherokee Nation Donating Masks To School Districts Requiring Them In Defiance Of State Law

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Cherokee Nation
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Hulbert Public Schools Superintendent Jolyn Choate (left) accepts a donation of masks from Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. (second from left) on Thursday, Aug. 17, 2020, alongside other Tribal officials.

Cherokee Nation announced Thursday it will donate Tribally-manufactured masks to any public school districts within its reservation boundaries that require them to be worn, despite a state law signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in May that makes implementing that public health measure illegal.

"It is mystifying to me that the state of Oklahoma has made it illegal for Oklahoma public schools to implement mask mandates, which have been proven to work and protect our families and communities," Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement. "I continue to strongly encourage school districts within our reservation and across the state of Oklahoma to protect their students and staff from this virus by implementing mask requirements."

The Tribe donated 16,200 masks manufactured at its own personal protective equipment manufacturing facilities in Stilwell and Hulbert to Hulbert Public Schools, which adopted a mask requirement following spread of COVID-19 that forced two of its school sites to close to in-person instruction and pivot to virtual learning.

"As a former math teacher, numbers are very loud, and concerning most definitely when you're looking at this kind of contagious, infectious virus," said Hulbert Superintendent Jolyn Choate in a video message. "It just can't be something that we overlook or don't do something about."

In response to the vote by the Hulbert board of education, Stitt and Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor assailed the school in a news release, saying Hulbert officials are "openly violating state law" and "actively trying to undermine our constitutional structure of government."

The governor's office did not return a request for comment on what, if any, consequences they are pursuing against the district.

“I hope we will all support schools in doing what is necessary to protect our children, our staff, and their families from this dangerous virus,” Hoskin said. “This includes strongly encouraging mask usage. I also hope Gov. Stitt will listen to Oklahoma doctors and educators who are asking him to declare a public health emergency, which would allow hospitals the ability to implement surge plans for additional beds and resources and would empower schools to exercise local control to determine what is best for their students and districts by relying on the same methods we rely on within the Cherokee Nation: medical science, facts, and compassion.”

Officials from Keys Public Schools in Park Hill said they would like to implement the same mask mandate they had in place last year, and would potentially move to do so in violation of the law if they consider it necessary to protect their students and staff.

"You know, the reason we didn't have any COVID spread last year -- and, as a matter of fact, we didn't even have any flu in the school district last year -- was because of all the mitigation efforts we partook, did. And masks was part of it," said Keys Superintendent Vol Woods.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both recommend universal masking in schools to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the more contagious Delta variant. Despite that guidance, Oklahoma State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lance Frye this month declined to comment on whether he supports that policy, and Stitt has stood by the law he signed because of a belief that children should not have to wear masks in classrooms.

School boards could mandate masks only following the declaration of a state of emergency from the governor, which Stitt has indicated he does not plan to do.

On Friday, the state reported a three-day average of 56 Oklahoma children hospitalized due to COVID-19, the highest since the health department began reporting that figure in July.

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