Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The Oglala Sioux Tribe is ordering all K-12 schools on the Pine Ridge reservation to quarantine due to a rapid rise in COVID-19 infections. Schools must quarantine for 10 days until Sept. 29, according to a tribal government issued order.

As of Tuesday, there have been 15 new cases of the disease. As of Sept. 14, there are 41 active cases of COVID-19 across the tribal lands.

“Our youngest positive case is 4 months old, our oldest is 101 years old,” said Dayna Brave Eagle, the tribe’s education agency director.

Leaders issued the order as a means to protect children under age 12 who can’t receive the vaccine and to decrease the risk to elders and other high-risk citizens.

“This is a matter of keeping our members and our children safe,” said the tribe’s Vice President Alicia Mousseau during a public Zoom call on Tuesday.

Children under age 12 represent approximately 14.5 percent of the U.S. population, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

COVID-19 rates in South Dakota have increased 22 percent in the past two weeks; rates in North Dakota have increased by 47 percent.

“Health care professionals predicted we’d see an increase in COVID-19 infections after the Sturgis rally and the state fair and we certainly have seen an increase,” said Rikki Schad, deputy director for clinical operations clinic for the Great Plains Tribal Health Board. Schad is a citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has resisted enacting any COVID-19 restrictions especially for events such as the Sturgis motorcycle rally in August or the state fair in early September. She has vigorously opposed President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal employees and has threatened to sue the federal government over the mandate.

Alicia Mousseau, newly elected Vice President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. (Photo from Facebook)

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, South Dakota tribes have taken an aggressive approach to preventing infections in their communities, frequently at odds with Noem’s hands off policies of “personal responsibility.”

According to a report by NBC News, COVID-19 cases rose nearly six-fold two weeks after the popular Sturgis rally. Infections in the state rose to 3,819 including 7 deaths up from 644 cases during 14 days prior to the rally.

“We have definitely noticed an increase in Rapid City’s school age children getting the disease; we’ve also seen an increase in the adult school population including teachers, secretaries and anybody connected with schools,” said Schad.

Most of those infected, about 95 percent, are unvaccinated according to Schad. Unvaccinated people seem to be getting sicker than those infected during the first round of the disease. “It feels like the impact is greater this year than last year,” she said.

The Rapid City school board voted against a mask mandate even though board member Amy Policky argued there aren’t enough staff to supervise students. Nearby Douglas School District is enacting a threshold reopening plan, schools can remain open if COVID-19 cases are under 1.5 percent but is not requiring students to wear masks.

The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe recently enacted a mandate for citizens to wear masks indoors including schools. During the first outbreak in 2020, the tribe maintained highway checkpoints on state and federal roads in an effort to ward off the infection.

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“We have 45 new infections, 18 of those people are under the age of 18,” said Danette Serr, acting CEO of Cheyenne River Tribal Health.

“We’ve averaged at least four or five new infections everyday in the past two weeks and it’s only going to increase,” said Delores Pourier, Oglala Sioux tribe’s health administrator.

Some students and educators at Pine Ridge schools, Red Cloud Indian School, a private Catholic K-12 school and Batesland Elementary School part of the Shannon County school district are opposed to the quarantine order. According to a report by KEVN Fox News of Rapid City, several Red Cloud students organized a protest outside of the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s headquarters in the town of Pine Ridge. Students are upset that schools are the only institutions being shut down on the reservation.

Brave Eagle reminded viewers during the community Zoom call that although some of the schools on Pine Ridge are private or state-run, they are located on the reservation and subject to tribal laws.

“This is a temporary solution; it’s not a lockdown,” said Mousseau.

“If everyone cooperates, I think we can get ahead of this,” said Brave Eagle.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report

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