School board, command center mum on Wide Ruins exposure
In an April 28 message, Wide Ruins Community School interim principal Jeannie Lewis informed employees that due to a “POSSIBLE COVID-19 exposure” the school building would be closed until May 4. However, the notice was not shared with parents, even though the possible infected staff member had been at the school.
“Homework packets and food had gone out when the staff member, who was possibly COVID-19 positive, was still working,” said parent Jessica Allen. “This is the really sad part. Apparently, the staff member told the school they were sick and running a fever, but they still told the individual to still come in to work.”
Exasperated parents say their concerns over the situation have been disregarded. “No parents, community members have been notified!” Allen announced in a May 1 Facebook post. “The school board and certain employees do not care about our kids, other employees, or community members.
“We have been blowing the whistle, waving flags, writing statements and yet we continue to fall on deaf ears!!! Since the school admin and board will not make an announcement, we will do it for them,” she said. Furthermore, says Allen, the school demanded certain employees continue working and the school board still met at the school, not abiding by Navajo Nation policy. “To me it’s complete negligence,” said Allen.
To date, no one has been able to confirm if the school has been deep cleaned and sanitized. Principal Jeanne Lewis and school board members did not return multiple calls from the Navajo Times.
Command Center: No response
At least five WRCS parents notified the Navajo COVID-19 Health Command Operation Center to report the situation via their emergency hotline. Allen said that the people answering the phones at the command center had a “horrible attitude,” and parents were told they needed proof of the COVID-19 case for them to take any action.
“The command center told me, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve been getting multiple calls about that,’” said Allen. Parent Advisory Committee member Savannah Stanley said one parent was told, “You guys have to stop calling” and “quit complaining” by the command center.
Finally, on May 3, interim principal Lewis sent a message to parents saying the school was partially closed due to a possible COVID-19 case and that educational packets and grab-and-go meals resume after May 18. Lewis also notified staff that essential workers, including maintenance, security and administrative staff, would be allowed to perform daily duties.
“I think the principal is realizing that she walked into a big mess and is now trying to retract her steps and cover her bases,” said Allen. “I do believe that either the business manager or the school board are telling her what moves to make. The school board is known to keep parents in the dark.”
Problems with the school board, including nepotism, favoritism and retaliation have plagued the school for years, she said. Former Principal Rachel Maho, who was trying to enforce strict safety rules, was put on administrative leave in mid-April and was replaced by Lewis. “The school board is incompetent,” said Allen. “They didn’t heed to Maho’s suggestions. Now they continue to make irresponsible decisions.”
Allen says what was a chronic problem with the school board before has now become dangerous in the midst of a pandemic.
The former principal, Maho, said that school board members did not like that she put students first and that she was falsely accused of stealing funds from the school. “We believe they framed Maho,” said Allen.
“There have been eight principals since 2014,” said Maho. “There is no consistency at the school.” The school board held a meeting at the school on Monday, May 4, in spite of the fact that there is an executive order not to meet in person, said Allen.
In the meeting, Lewis said everyone was observing CDC precautionary guidelines such as social distancing.
An anonymous employee said there were at least 13 individuals at the school that day, that they have not been provided sufficient PPE, and that some staff were scared. That same evening, Lewis sent another text to parents saying that due to the “non-confirmed COVID” case the school would resume homework and food deliveries again on May 6, which left parents wondering what “non-confirmed” meant.
At this point many parents stated they would refuse deliveries due to fear of contamination. Meanwhile, the school gave “non-renewal” contracts to at least two employees, said Allen. “Both of these individuals have worked well with parents and have always had the kids best interest at heart,” said Allen. “I truly feel it is retaliation from the school board and Business Manager Marleita Begay.” Begay did not respond to a call from the Navajo Times.
Positive COVID-19 confirmed
On May 8, an employee notified Allen that the “possible” COVID-19 was now in fact positive, and yet again parents were not notified and select staff were still ordered to report to work, said Allen. There was also no mention of the confirmed COVID-19 positive case in the May 11 school board teleconference meeting during which parents were “not allowed to comment.”
Meanwhile, there has been no follow-up from the command center or any response to multiple emails and calls from this reporter to command center heads Jill Jim and David Nez. Allen said she finally called the Indian Health Service to ask for advice and to her disappointment they referred her back to the command center.
As timing would have it, President Jonathan Nez, who oversees the command center, was in Wide Ruins on Tuesday giving out food boxes with no acknowledgment of the situation at the school, said Allen. “It’s pretty infuriating only because it goes to show there is either a breakdown in communication or they just don’t care about our calls,” said Allen.
The Department of Diné Education’s COVID-19 task force team, including acting Superintendent Maggie Benally and Program Manager Darrick Franklin, said once the Nation’s emergency orders were put in place and schools and dormitories were closed due to the pandemic, they quickly developed comprehensive safety and academic policies based on state, federal and CDC guidelines that were distributed to schools.
This included guidelines for how to transition non-critical staff to telework and protocols in the event of a COVID-19 exposure. Benally and Franklin said unequivocally that the safety of students, teachers, staff and administrators at the schools was their first priority.
Memos sent out by DODE under president’s office letterhead clearly outlined protocols for continuing key components to keep schools functional while abiding to strict safety measures. It was also clarified that all teachers and staff see no disruption in pay as a result of the pandemic and are encouraged to follow their continuity of operation plans.
The Navajo Nation Board of Education also encouraged all education institutions operating on Navajo to use continuous learning activities such as web-based technology, video conferencing, or other means of instruction. The memo clearly advised not to hold any face-to-face meetings of any sort.
After hearing that the WRCS board had held an in-person meeting, Franklin acknowledged the school board had a history of being “defiant.” He said protocols clearly state that the principal must report a possible COVID-19 exposure to the command center and request the Bureau of Indian Education to sanitize the school.
‘Cat and mouse’
“I’m hoping this sheds light on the fact that especially in such a time, these individuals do not care for authority,” said Allen.
When the children were released from school because of the pandemic, there was little communication with parents about how the school was going to handle academics, including homework, or to address COVID-19, she said. “None of that was really discussed,” she said. “It was really frustrating.”
When they put the principal on administrative leave that threw everything into a tailspin, she said. “The Wide Ruins Community School Board is not following the Navajo Nation executive order on COVID-19,” said former principal Maho in a May 4 statement. “This a profoundly serious concern since students received instructional packets and sack lunches delivered to them by the employees who were exposed to the (COVID-19 positive) employee,” she said.
Maho said she was shocked that no information or safety procedures were sent out to parents or community members. “This negligence reflects the lack of concern for the life and health of all involved,” said Maho. “The school board already violated the executive order twice by entering the school when they were informed not to be in the building.” Maho said while parents, stakeholders, and community members have been voicing their concerns, they are treated with disrespect.
“The school board is going crazy,” said parent Savannah Stanley. Stanley suggested business manager Marleita Begay, who is also Apache County treasurer, was behind the accusations against Maho. “They tried to say the principal took $15,000, but her assistant said that the money was still there,” she said.
Stanley said Maho always tried to do right by students but the board did not like that. “They were trying to make Miss Maho the bad person, but she was all in it for the kids,” she said. “Everything that she came up with, they shot her down.”
Stanley said the board has consistently done their best to alienate parents and DODE as well. “They just play ‘Tom and Jerry,’ cat and mouse,” said Stanley. “They give you a little hope and then at the end they just laugh at you and tell you, ‘Nope, that’s not going to work!’”
Things have been so bad for so long that some parents have lost faith in the whole Navajo Nation system, said Stanley. “Staff members are in fear for their jobs and retaliation from the school board,” said Allen. “That’s how horrible it is.”
As of Wednesday, parents still had not received official notice from the school about the confirmed positive COVID-19 case. “If nobody knows these things, people are spreading it like wildfire,” she said. “The sad thing is I know we’re not the only community out there going through something like this.”