Statement Regarding High School Football Games
COVID-19 has taken a horrific toll on Native American communities and the Colorado River Indian Tribes (“CRIT”) is no exception.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes reports 99 new positive cases of coronavirus from Indian Health Services since September 1, 2021. This brings the total to 1007 positive cases from Indian Health Services users. To date, there have been 20 Tribal community member COVID related deaths.
Because of this recent surge in COVID-19 cases within the Reservation and La Paz County and additional deaths on the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation, the Tribal Council re-issued a mask mandate as well as its safer at home protocols.
The mandate requires masks to be worn by all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, in any indoor location, which includes schools. All schools in the Parker Unified School District are located on the Colorado River Indian Reservation and are considered Indian Country for purposes of jurisdiction and the exercise of CRIT’s sovereign authority. CRIT has the authority to regulate the conduct of its membership and other Indians on the Reservation-the State of Arizona laws and the Governor’s orders do not apply to CRIT members and other Indians.
Unfortunately, the District Superintendent has chosen to not implement the mask mandate throughout all of the schools even though federal law allows Tribal governments to regulate the conduct of non-Indians on fee land within the Reservation when it has a direct effect on the health or welfare of the tribe and its members. A pandemic caused by a virus as contagious as coronavirus knows no boundaries and does not alter its course of infection based on whether an individual is Indian or non-Indian or whether they are standing on fee land or trust land.
PUSD’s decision to make masks optional at the schools located in the Town of Parker creates a risk to the health and welfare of CRIT members given the fact that approximately 30 percent of the student population are either Tribal members or other Indians.
PUSD has only been implementing the CRIT face mask mandate at one school, Le Pera, located on the reservation but outside of the Town of Parker and on the school buses. The impacts of face masks are clear with PUSD only reporting 2 cases of positive COVID-19 exposure at school since August 1 at Le Pera School while the four schools in the Town of Parker have reported a combined total of 41 since August 1. These numbers also far exceed exposures reported last school year when face masks were enforced at all schools at PUSD.
When PUSD advises its staff and students that the face mask mandate is optional they are advising them to violate applicable law. Given the risks posed by a mass gathering, and PUSD’s continued direction to violate the law while students are in the classroom, CRIT cannot permit a gathering of students, staff and individuals who may have been exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom throughout the school week without the protective benefit of face masks.
CRIT believes in education and community spirit. Indeed, Tribal Chairwoman Amelia Flores serves on the PUSD School Board. But any government’s first job must be to protect the health and safety of the people it serves. Attendance at school is mandatory-football is not. We need to take measures to ensure our children miss as few days as possible. CRIT saw the detrimental impacts of distance and hybrid learning on our students’ academic performance, along with the mental and physical toll it took last year. The use of face masks is a critical tool to preventing our children from missing anymore classroom time due to COVID-19 exposures and avoid serious illness or death of them or their family members.
Given the potential for illness and loss of life, CRIT feels the inconvenience of requiring the local schools to comply with the face mask mandate during the school day, before permitting large gatherings for local high school football games, is a small price to pay to protect the health and welfare of the CRIT community. We wish it were otherwise and soon hope all of this is behind everybody.