Hulbert super: Mask mandate lowering COVID infection spread

Jolyn Choate is the superintendent of Hulbert Public Schools. In August, she received a shipment of masks from Cherokee Nation, three large boxes of which are pictured.

HULBERT, Oklahoma – The past few weeks have felt a little more normal for Hulbert students, since the school administration defied the state's ban on mask mandates, and established expectations and routines to help keep the doors open.

Hulbert, one of the state's smallest school districts, imposed the mandate Aug. 18 during the ban, following two metro districts. Since then, positive COVID tests are down, and the few positive tests recorded have not resulted in student-to-student spread. Meanwhile, a judge ordered a stay on the state law banning mask mandates, and other schools have begun to require facial coverings. Among them was the largest district in Cherokee County, Tahlequah, after the board of education voted earlier this week to impose one. Exemptions are available for health or religious reasons.

Hulbert Superintendent Jolyn Choate has had parents call her and how a mask mandate will help keep their children in school. Over the course of many conversations, she has an answer for them.

“I had parents who said, 'What’s that going to do to help keep us in person?' And what I shared then is that it’s going to help us tremendously. Because we won’t have to say, ‘You’ve been in close contact with someone who’s been exposed to COVID-19, so according to the CDC, you need to stay quarantined.’ Instead, because everyone is in a mask, if you’ve tested positive, just that person goes home, and everybody else can stay,” she said.

Since the school district has implemented the mask requirement, students have been accommodating, and they have not detected a single transmission that took place at the school.

“This works,” said Choate.

Two students at the elementary school came to class with COVID-19 on Sept. 8. Other than those, no other child was sent into quarantine. The last positive case before that took place on Aug. 30.

Throughout the school year thus far, Choate has investigated families who have tested positive. She found that in many cases, families were in contact with the virus prior to the student's receiving a positive test.

Before the mandate, Choate experienced a case in which a kindergarten student contracted COVID. Within three to five days, a handful of other kindergartners also got the virus. A similar incident of student-to-student contraction took place in their pre-K program.

“When we started and we were not in masks, I had a kindergartenr who tested positive, and later two more tested positive. The only correlation was that kindergarten classroom," she said. "And so, the fact that I haven’t had another incident where we’ve tested positive, and that someone else has tested positive, to me, speaks volumes."

Choate was initially nervous about implementing a mask mandate initially, since it defied state government orders, but she does not regret it.

“To remain open, I didn’t see any other way for that to happen,” she said.

She has recommended to other superintendents that they demonstrate kindness when implementing mask requirements. Because nearly everyone in every classroom is wearing one, if a child wants to yawn for a second, she doesn’t mind if that student steps out of the room for a moment, or the teacher lets him or her pull down the mask for a second. This helps the children to be comfortable, but it only works when all the others in the room are wearing masks.

Hulbert has a policy that allows for medical exemptions for wearing masks, but Choate said it has rarely been used. In a certain instance, one student started to wear a face mask, despite having the exemption.

Overall, Choate has seen success at the school so far, and anticipates a great year.

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