Wednesday, March 22, 2023

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Schools on Nation to remain closed


The Nabik’iyati’I Committee last Thursday tabled legislation that would have allowed to schools on the reservation to open to hybrid learning.

The tabled legislation, which would rescind a resolution currently in effect that ordered schools to remain online, was also amended to add the Department of Diné Education’s school reopening plan that was passed March 16.

As reported in last week’s Navajo Times, the plan requires schools to appoint a reopening readiness team consisting of an administrator, local health worker, a teacher, a facility maintenance representative and parent or guardian to determine whether the school is ready to reopen.

At the current “orange” level of COVID-19 danger, the school could have a maximum of 35% classroom occupancy — that’s nine students and a teacher in a classroom that usually holds 30 students. Once the yellow level is reached, occupancy is 50%, and at the green level, it’s 75%, among other guidelines such as screening students and staff, mask requirements, etc.

“We are now in a different stage — we have hundreds of thousands of (vaccine) dosage that have been distributed across the Nation and have been administered,” said Delegate Carl Slater, who introduced the legislation to rescind the school closure resolution, which has been in place about a year. “Early this week we had a day where we had no new cases or no new deaths,” he said. “With that in mind we need to start untying the hands of schools and government and create a path.”

Slater said he had spoken with a public school district that surveyed 600 parents, and 25% would like safe in-person instruction. Among the 500 students surveyed, 50% want in-person instruction. “That in-person instruction should only be safely pursued if can be safely be done within the guidelines of the safety plan,” said Slater.

Delegate Otto Tso disagreed with rescinding the closure order because the threat of COVID-19 is still prevalent. He also noted that the Council does not meet in person completely, so it makes no sense to have students return to school just yet. “If that’s the case why are we still meeting telephonically (as a) Navajo Nation Council?” asked Tso. “(If) this is the wish of Council, maybe we should meet and maybe be the guinea pigs.”

Navajo Nation acting Superintendent of Schools Patricia Gonnie said if a parent determines that they don’t want their student to participate in in-person learning they have that choice and schools have to respect it and make provisions for online learning.

“We have known there to be academic achievement disparities,” said Gonnie. “On the basis we have poverty levels. We have high unemployment rate, and our students have an academic achievement disparity when they’re compared to other students.”

She explained remaining online continues to impact students in a negative way, especially those who are most vulnerable and have learning disabilities, not to mention those who don’t have internet access. Gonnie said schools need to start reengaging students.

“This plan would allow our school leaders to make the determination to seek those students who are most at risk and provide for an invitation to return to in-person learning,” said Gonnie. Vaccination rates on the Navajo Nation have continued to soar to around 36% of adults. Vaccines are currently available to anyone 16 and over.

But, the threat of COVID-19 and its variants is still out there. On Tuesday, it was reported the B117 variant was found in the Western Agency. Although case numbers on the reservation are low and businesses are open at 25%, the U.S. is bracing itself for its fourth wave even as some states ease restrictions.

Parents, relatives, students, teachers, and guardians commented on the legislation to rescind the closure resolution and most of them were against the reopening of schools, citing safety concerns.

In the end Delegate Charlaine Tso motioned to table the legislation until the Naabik’iyat’I’ Committee meeting before the summer session, meaning schools will remain closed through the remainder of the school year. The vote to table was 13-8. “One life lost is too much already,” said Tso. “We have children right now who are suffering, who have lost their parents, their grandparents. Our children are our future.”

 As a public service, the Navajo Times is making all coverage of the coronavirus pandemic fully available on its website. Please support the Times by subscribing.

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About The Author

Arlyssa Becenti

Arlyssa Becenti reported on Navajo Nation Council and Office of the President and Vice President. Her clans are Nát'oh dine'é Táchii'nii, Bit'ahnii, Kin łichii'nii, Kiyaa'áanii. She’s originally from Fort Defiance and has a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. Before working for the Navajo Times she was a reporter for the Gallup Independent.


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