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Families, teachers hanging in there through first quarter of online school

CHINLE

After a quarter of online school on the reservation, the verdict is in, and in these divisive times, the consensus is remarkable: Hardly anybody likes it. Everyone agrees it’s necessary, at least until there’s a cure for COVID-19.

Based on interviews with students, teachers, parents and administrators, the biggest challenges seem to be connectivity issues, particularly in remote areas of the reservation, and what Chinle High senior Damien Jones calls “lack of time management skills.”

“About a third of my students have just dropped off the face of the earth,” complained one teacher, who asked that her name not be used so as not to reflect badly on the kids. “They haven’t shown up for a single Zoom meeting. They haven’t turned in a single assignment. I can’t get ahold of them or their parents.”

“Most F’s I’ve ever given,” posted another reservation teacher on Facebook. “Not a good feeling.”

“Awful,” agreed teacher Karen Constance of Zuni, New Mexico. “A boatload of F’s. On the best of days our kids don’t like doing homework; during a pandemic it gets much worse.”

Teachers say their workload has increased exponentially trying to learn new software and plan engaging virtual lessons for all their classes. It hasn’t been a picnic for parents either as they take time off from work to keep the kids on task or try to parent remotely and end up with a boatload of guilt. Some who trusted their kids a bit too much were shocked to hear from the teachers they hadn’t been logging in to the Zoom sessions all quarter.

“I feel like my third-grader didn’t learn anything. And my junior cared less to participate,” lamented Gee Jones of Chinle. “I feel like my babies learn more one-on-one.”

Even for the motivated students, it’s a challenge. Parents say the teachers are giving too much homework; teachers say because of the way the school software works, they have to give a daily assignment whether they want to or not.

“It’s kicking our butts!” declared parent Alicia Manuelito of Kirtland, New Mexico, who moved her family in with her mother in Shiprock because she has “way better Wi-Fi.”

“I get them up and they get ready,” Manuelito said, “(and) are sitting at their computers before 8 a.m. They hardly take any breaks and continue into the evenings. … Still we are trying to catch up!”

San Juan (Utah) School District Superintendent Ron T. Nielson is in the unique position of managing both virtual schools (on the reservation) and hybrid schools in Monticello and Blanding, so he’s been crunching the numbers to see which system works better.

“So far it looks like the students in the virtual-only schools are really struggling,” he said. On the other hand, the hybrid model, where the parents have a choice of whether to send their students for in-person learning or keep them home, is putting more stress on the teachers.

“Our teachers are complaining they have a double workload, having to prepare both a virtual and in-person lesson for each class,” he said. “We had several retirements before this school year, and I suspect it had something to do with the situation.”

Fortunately, he said, the hybrid schools have been able to avoid a coronavirus outbreak in spite of 75% to 80% of the students choosing to attend in person. “We’ve had three cases in three different schools, but we were able to keep those from spreading,” he said.

San Juan also has some of the most remote schools on the reservation, so the connectivity challenges have been immense. So far they’ve been making do with mobile hotspots and sending the kids their lessons on thumb drives, but by the end of December the district will have technology available to send the school’s own network into individual homes, Nielson said.

Long-term, the district recently got a $4 million allocation from the state Legislature to start laying fiber-optic cable. “The problem is once the fiber is laid, we still have to find a provider willing to actually provide the service,” Nielson said, which is difficult when low population densities don’t make it worth the companies’ while financially.

Remarkably, administrators, teachers and parents seem to be avoiding casting blame for the disastrous first quarter on each other, with most of the interviewees saying everyone seems to be doing the best they can under the circumstances.

And what about the kids? Well, the kids — at least the ones we talked to — are all right. Chinle High senior Tristen Tom euphemistically called first quarter “an experience,” while Jones said once he got the time management thing figured out, it went pretty well for him, although he misses playing saxophone in the school band.

Sisters Danielle, 11, and Naomi Tsosie, 14, of Kinlichee, Arizona, said they’re actually enjoying the online lessons now that the teachers seem to be getting the hang of it.

“Some teachers are better at it than others, but they’re all getting better,” said Naomi, a freshman at Ganado High. Both sisters were able to pull all A’s and B’s in spite of spotty internet at their home and having to use their cell phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot.

What’s their secret? No secret. “I like school,” shrugged Danielle.


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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