But when a Jenks, Oklahoma, school district posted images of its high school state champion football team celebrating victory this weekend, the response was far from congratulatory.
Mixed in-between the extra-large gold bows, bright yellow cowboy hats, and hundreds of students shoved together in jubilation were a small handful of masks—reminders of the viral pandemic ravaging the region and the country. Hundreds of comments that rolled in on the Jenks Public Schools Facebook page were seething, after the nation reached horrific new national records of COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations last week.
“Why is nobody wearing a mask?” asked one.
“Super spreader event?” asked another.
“Every single one of those kids are old enough to know wtf is going on and to wear a mask,” wrote a third. “I'm only a few years older, at most. Shame on every single one of them. When their elderly family dies, I hope it eats at their soul for the rest of their lives.”
While homecoming dances, weddings, and other large-scale events have emerged as symbols of rebellion in a country that can’t seem to quit superspreader catastrophes, that a school would trumpet such reckless behavior touched a nerve.
“I understand kids get excited and probably have had a tough year and this was good news for them, but it was upsetting,” said Lori Buchanan, an Uber Eats driver who lives in Oklahoma City and grew up in Edmond, where the game took place, in a phone call with The Daily Beast. “They’ve come to our town and our city and behave like this, then eat at our restaurants, pump gas at our gas stations, and leave germs all over the city.”
The Tulsa Health Department, which covers the county where Jenks is located, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Monday. But the latest numbers show that Tulsa County had 36,375 cumulative confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 289 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. A White House Coronavirus Task Force report last month described the virus’s spread in Oklahoma as “unyielding” and said “the most recent trends, showing steep inclines across all indicators, need immediate action including mask requirements to decrease severity in morbidity and mortality among Oklahomans.”
Elise Ramsey, a 22-year-old alum of Jenks High School and a current student at the University of Tulsa, told The Daily Beast she was “horrified” by the post.
“Health professionals have been publicly begging the community to do whatever we can to slow spread for several weeks now,” said Ramsey. “I live with at-risk family members—including a retired combat veteran—and we haven’t felt comfortable going into stores or restaurants in months.”
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After the backlash, the district issued an apology on Sunday, saying that it “acknowledges and accepts this criticism.” But it did not remove the post in question. The district did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast on Monday.
“There were too many high school students without masks and too many high school students in close contact with one another,” said a statement posted on the same Facebook page, in which the school pledged to maintain stricter safety protocols at future events. “This is not the kind of safe environment JPS seeks to create for students and staff members.”
Still, Jenks High School said on Facebook that it would return to in-person learning on Monday. And the apology wasn’t satisfactory to many in the community.
“The very fact that the pictures were posted with no mention of the pandemic and only a mild apology after public backlash is, I think, very telling,” Ramsey said. “Jenks does not exist in a vacuum.”
The game took place at University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. Visitors, students, and staff members on the campus are required to wear face coverings when within six feet of others. The city of Edmond also has its own mask ordinance in effect through Feb. 28, 2021, reported The Kansas City Star.
“It does seem like there was a lot of people at the stadium,” Edmond Mayor Dan O’Neil told The Daily Beast on Monday, adding, “We don’t control what goes on at the university or the school system.”
Even if the first epicenters of the virus in the U.S. were mostly large cities, the past several months have shown that rural and suburban communities are far from immune from its threat.
“I think people think they’re safe because they’re in their little suburban bubble, and that’s just not true,” said Buchanan, noting the game took place about 15 miles from her house.
“There are so many people making sacrifices,” she added.
Nancy Vandenhende, a 24-year-old small business owner who lives in Tulsa and attended the Jenks school system from kindergarten through high school, acknowledged that “there was nothing quite like a Friday night under those lights.”
But Vandenhende said memories like that aren’t a reason to ignore the pandemic as it enters a twisted new wave during a holiday season widely expected to send cases and deaths further into overdrive.
“It deeply saddened me to see people not taking the proper precautions to protect everyone around us,” she told The Daily Beast. “We have got to do better and care more about those around us.”