Sequoyah High School students, parents protest for in-person and virtual classes

BY STACIE BOSTON
Multimedia Reporter
09/26/2020 10:00 AM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
During a Sept. 24 protest, Sequoyah High School students hold signs voicing concerns at the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex in hopes to gain “equal opportunity” for in-person or virtual classes. STACIE BOSTON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Sequoyah High School students and parents hold signs during a Sept. 24 protest at the W.W. Tribal Complex regarding choice of in-person and virtual learning. STACIE BOSTON/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – When there was uncertainty about participating in sports for the upcoming school year, Cherokee Nation citizen Asa Robbins, a Sequoyah High School senior, wrote an email with the subject “Why Sports Matter” in August addressing her concerns and emailed it to CN officials.

She had no idea that the following month she, her peers and parents would be protesting for “equal opportunity” for in-person and virtual classes in front of the Tribal Complex.

“I’m a three-time cross-country all-stater so this was my last year to do it and it got canceled. That would have been school history,” she said. “I just kind of talked about that, what sports meant, how it helped students, how it was an incentive to actually go and work hard at school for some students.”

Robbins said her letter did not attract much attention before school began on Aug. 24. She said students went once a week to in-person classes with different grades attending on different days. On Sept. 8, that halted and students shifted to virtual learning only.

“We thought with that plan, as long as we were…in the clear and didn’t have any cases that we would be fine. I feel like we got misled a lot into believing these things,” she said.

Robbins said her mother then shared her letter on Facebook, which led to the protest.

“A lot of people think that this is about sports and extra-curricular activities and it’s not. Right now it’s about education, and extra-curricular activities comes behind all of that,” she said.

CN citizen Sarah Barnett attended the protest with her son, Hayden, a SHS freshman. She said he was excited for his first year at SHS and that what is happening is “unfair.”

“They need that social interaction, and he’s not learning in the way that he should be learning,” Barnett said. “I feel like it’s really unfair that they’re not getting the opportunity that everyone else around us is getting.”

Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said while he sympathizes with and admires the students for “exercising their free speech rights” the decision to go virtual is “driven by science, facts and the compassion” for the “students and the communities where they live.” He said when students returned to school, it meant “getting acclimated to the virtual environment.”

“That went very well and given the rise of the spread within our communities it makes sense to keep the students, keep the teachers, keep the larger communities safe by using the technology and resources that we have,” he said.

Hoskin said officials have communicated with parents and students throughout the pandemic. He said when it comes to pandemic procedures the tribe is “leading” other schools and governments that are not “following” them.

“I think if you go back to our initial “Return to School Plan,” which was communicated to students and communicated to the public, there were indications in that statement that we would shift based on what the risk of the spread dictated,” he said. “Given what we know about the increase and the spread in our communities I certainly don’t think anyone should be surprised we took this kind of measure.”

As for the protesters, Hoskin said he “certainly understands even more so the depth of their feelings” but he “can’t make a change unless the risk to the public changes, and right now the risk to the public is too high.”

“My hope is that they will also reflect on the people in the community that we are trying to protect. I hope they think about those first-language Cherokee speakers, who are elders that we are losing. I hope they reflect on that and I hope they understand the context in which we make these decisions,” he said.
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