BIE schools to open in-person Sept. 16; school board association, Nez not pleased
A memo from the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs has instructed the nation’s 53 Bureau of Indian Education-controlled schools — more than half of which are located on the Navajo Nation — to open as “brick-and-mortar” institutions “to the maximum extent possible” on Sept. 16.
Although parents with concerns may choose to keep their children home and pursue alternate learning strategies, teachers must report to work, the memo specifies. About a dozen BIE school principals and teachers contacted about the memo said they weren’t allowed to talk to the press as federal employees, but some privately expressed concern, especially since some of the schools were slow to close this past spring and experienced multiple COVID-19 cases among the staff. Several school employees died of the disease.
When questioned about the memo, BIE’s Navajo Region Education Resources Center referred this reporter to the BIE’s public information officer, who did not return an email by press time.
The Diné bi Olta School Board Association, which represents the governing boards of both BIE-controlled and locally controlled grant schools, has actively protested the measure and questioned BIE Director Tony Dearman’s statement before the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee that the plan was arrived at after consultation with school and tribal officials.
“They (BIE) really haven’t been transparent,” said DBOSBA Executive Director Jordan Etcitty. “They started public hearings really late in the game, in mid-July, and they didn’t have a plan until late last week. “Mr. Dearman told the Senate he’d been in direct contact with tribal leaders and school leaders,” he said, “but we haven’t heard from him and neither has the HEHS (Navajo Nation Council Health, Education and Human Services Committee), and we have the most BIE schools of any tribe.”
The school opening memo came out Aug. 6, and some BIE teachers said they first learned of it as late as this past Tuesday. The grant schools are not required to follow the plan, but are urged to use it as “guidance.” Etcitty said most of the grant schools have gone ahead and created their own plans for re-opening, with most having gone to some form of online learning. “The local school boards are on top of it,” he said.
The memo — which oddly is from Bureau of Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney rather than the BIE although the BIE was separated from the BIA as an independent agency in 2006 — mandates PPE and social distancing in class, with the option of half-full classes alternating days. It also orders residential halls to remain closed.
But Etcitty said he feels the only sensible solution for Navajo is online classes for at least the first semester. “The kids are excited to see their friends,” he said. “There’s no way we can make them social-distance.”
President Jonathan Nez also favors online learning for now, and says he told Dearman and Sweeney as much in a teleconference Monday after learning of the BIA plan.
“There is a possibility that parents may choose to move their children out of BIE schools if they feel that BIE schools are unsafe and enroll them in other schools,” he said. “If the number of enrolled students goes down within BIE schools, that may provide the federal government with justification to cut funding for BIE schools, which would be very disappointing and unfortunate.”
He added, “If BIE schools reopen as scheduled and there is a COVID-19 outbreak among students, teachers or staff, I will hold Assistant Secretary Sweeney and Mr. Dearman responsible.”
Etcitty also took the BIE to task for sitting on Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funds earmarked for BIE schools. “That funding was held for a good two-and-a-half months,” he said. “We had to plead to the BIE to send it out.”
Etcitty has written Dearman two letters, one challenging his Senate testimony and the other asking him to schedule a work session with Navajo education leaders and legislators this month. “I hope Dearman attends this meeting,” he said. “We need a chance to ask him, ‘How are you going to help our students?’
“BIE leadership has been lacking throughout this pandemic and it’s still lacking,” he charged. “Speaking for our membership, we’re very disappointed in the BIE.”
Not everyone is disappointed, however. Paul Meehan, who runs Shash Diné Eco-Retreat in Western Agency with his wife, cited a study from the United Kingdom that found pupils are not at a high risk of catching COVID-19 at school and said he would be OK with sending his children to school.
“Knowing 22 countries have reopened schools and Sweden never shut theirs, I’d follow the science and send my children to school,” he said. “The online option is a cluster and I fear my children falling behind.”