Rez schools adapt to COVID-19 threat

DURANGO, Colo.

School districts across the reservation are finding ways to keep teachers teaching and students learning during school closures mandated by the three states that overlap the Navajo Nation.

As of this week, according to proclamations by the various states’ governors, Utah school buildings are closed until May 1, Arizona schools until April 10 and New Mexico schools until April 3, although those dates could be extended as the virus continues to spread.

According to a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, BIE schools are being encouraged to follow state guidelines.

While New Mexico simply extended its spring break an extra week, Utah and Arizona school districts have instructed their teachers to prepare “distance learning packets,” reading material and worksheets the kids can do at home. Teachers who have a sufficient number of students who can access the internet may add some online curriculum as an option.

Most districts have kept their school breakfast and lunch programs open, allowing children to pick up their meals either at certain schools or bus stops, or having bus drivers deliver them along with the packets.

Chinle Unified, the largest school district on the reservation with 3,500 students spread across 4,200 square miles, took an extra week of spring break this week and is requiring its teachers to turn in three days’ worth of lessons by Friday and report to work Monday.

“We’re sanitizing all the buildings,” said Superintendent Quincy Natay. “We’re doing that this week.”

Teachers are instructed to stay at a distance of six feet from each other and not gather in groups of 10 or more, Natay said. The buildings will be disinfected every evening and every morning.

Obviously, anybody who feels sick should stay home, he added, noting, “We’re very liberal with our leave.”
Teachers are expected to start contacting their students to see how many have computers at home and how many have access to the internet.

“This would also be a good time to ask, ‘Are there things that we can to help in the home that we’re not aware of?’” Natay suggested.

Even if enough kids are wired in to make online learning feasible, “I’m worried that our infrastructure here may not support it,” Natay mentioned. “So we really need the teachers to do those packets as a backup.”

San Juan School District in Utah, which includes the Utah Navajo area, has been using the packets for a week, delivering them via school bus along with sack lunches and breakfasts.

“We haven’t been doing it long enough to assess the results,” said the district’s safety director, Matthew Keyes, “but I’m cautiously optimistic that we are delivering a quality education along with meals.”

Keyes said the schools are closed and teachers are preparing the packets from home.

“I’m encouraged by the team effort,” he said. “Being in such a rural area presents its problems, but it’s also a close-knit community, a really good community where people look out for each other.”

The number to Gallup-McKinley County Schools’ main office was busy all day Tuesday, but a letter posted on the New Mexico district’s website said all the district’s facilities are closed and no staff, students or community members are being allowed in without specific instructions from their supervisor.

Some Student Support Center staff will be providing essential services during this time and custodians will be cleaning and disinfecting the buildings April 2 to 3 to prepare for the arrival of students on April 6, unless the closure order is extended.

All employees are instructed to stay within 30 minutes of their work site during the closure.

Reservation teachers had mixed reactions to the distance-learning format. In general, the younger and more tech-savvy teachers seemed to be excited about the possibility of creating online curriculum while the older teachers were finding it a pain.

“I couldn’t find any quality materials I could download for free,” complained one 60-ish Arizona teacher, who asked that his name not be used as his administrators had forbidden faculty from talking to the media. “I just spent the last three days developing three pages of material for the packets.”

Twenty-five-year-old former Chinle High science teacher Sarah Groenwald, by contrast, was contacting some Navajos who use science in their work to record a series of video lectures for a YouTube channel she plans to make available to any teachers (or anyone else) who want them.

Teachers or potential guest lecturers interested in the project can contact her at sarah.groenwald@gmail.com.

Carmen El-Hajj, meanwhile, suggested going old school, using newspapers — specifically the Navajo-Hopi Observer, which is free and widely available in her area — to create curriculum.

Parents are watching their district websites and just hoping their kids can finish out the school year without losing ground.

“I did home school for a while, so I know how hard it is to keep them focused,” sighed Chinle mom Olivia Tom, who has a child in junior high and one in high school. “You have to ride them constantly. The kids with parents who are there and who keep them on task will do OK; the others may struggle.”

On the other hand, the kids are starting to get bored — “maybe bored enough to do their homework!” she laughed.



About The Author

Cindy Yurth

Cindy Yurth is the Tséyi' Bureau reporter, covering the Central Agency of the Navajo Nation. Her other beats include agriculture and Arizona state politics. She holds a bachelor’s degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University with a cognate in geology. She has been in the news business since 1980 and with the Navajo Times since 2005, and is the author of “Exploring the Navajo Nation Chapter by Chapter.” She can be reached at cyurth@navajotimes.com.

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