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Schools prepare to reopen amid pandemic


The Navajo Nation’s schools, located in three different states and under various types of administration, are making widely divergent plans for reopening next month as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

At least one Arizona district will be entirely online for the time being; New Mexico’s schools are being mandated by the state to take a hybrid approach; and San Juan School District in Utah will base its strategy on an online survey of staff, students and parents.

According to its website, Chinle Unified School District in the heart of the reservation (and the current hotspot of the COVID-19 pandemic) is not taking any chances and school will be entirely online until further notice.

The district has purchased 3,000 laptops — enough for every student — and equipment to set up Wi-Fi hotspots for those who don’t have access to the internet. Students will have the option to check out the laptops by paying a small insurance premium, which may be waived for indigent families. Wi-Fi access will be available in school parking lots and from buses that will deliver food and learning packet supplemental items.

Teachers are expected to learn the Schoology learning platform and Beyond Textbooks online curriculum to tailor lessons to their subject matter. Special education teachers will work directly with families to schedule in-person (if necessary) or telephonic therapies, and “social and emotional support” for students and families will be available.

Navajo Times | Sharon Chischilly
Sandra Sleuth hands out grab-and-go meals outside Gallup High School on March 23. Schools across the Navajo Nation are preparing to re-open next month, with adjustments to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several Chinle teachers contacted by the Times said they’re not too enthusiastic about another quarter of online learning, but are grateful they finally have a plan and can start to prepare. “I think the fact that they invested in equipment so all students have equal access to virtual learning is a plus,” said one teacher who asked not to be identified, as teachers have been cautioned against talking to the press. “If we’re going to do this, we need to be all in.”

An hour northwest in Kayenta, the administration is still digesting results of a staff and parent survey and pondering the effect of Gov. Doug Ducey’s recent postponement of the start of the school year from Aug. 3 to Aug. 17. “We’re going to have a work session July 8 and then finalize things at the July 13 board meeting,” reported district secretary Christina Yazzie. “Most likely it will be some form of distance learning.”

At last month’s school board work session, Superintendent Lemual Adson reported he had had staff take some measurements and, to preserve the recommended six-foot social distancing, only 13 students could be allowed in a classroom and 14 on a school bus. “I just don’t see any feasible way that will work for us,” he told the board.

In New Mexico, by contrast, the state department of education has issued a detailed set of instructions for “re-entry” into the school year. Schools will divide their students into two groups, and alternate them every day or week at the school buildings. While one group is taking regular classes, the other group will do distance learning, then the next day or week it will switch.

All students and teachers will be health-screened daily, and teachers who are at high risk of getting sick with the coronavirus may opt to teach from home. Meals will continue to be provided to both in-school and at-home students. Neither Central Consolidated School District nor Gallup McKinley County Schools returned a call to ask if they had devised an implementation plan specific to their district.

San Juan School District in Utah has a little more time to get their plan together as Utah schools don’t go back until Aug. 20.

According to its website, it was still gathering data from an online survey of staff, students and parents as of Tuesday.

The federally funded BIE schools are not subject to state guidelines. A draft plan for re-opening these schools will be presented at two Zoom meetings, one for tribes and one for the public, on July 9 and 10, respectively. Comments on the plan will be taken through July 25. The draft plan, which can be found at, allows schools to make their own decisions based on regional conditions, subject to the approval of the regional education program administrators.

BIE grant schools are under local control and will each make their own policies for re-opening.

The Division of Diné Education has come up with some guidelines for all schools on the Navajo Nation, but acting superintendent Patricia Gonnie did not return a phone call asking for details.

The New Mexico guidelines summarized the delicate task of all the districts: “As we move toward welcoming our students back to our campuses, it is critical that all educators, family members, and community members recognize that the need for prudent and proactive measures to prevent the spread of the virus will become more important— not less—in order to keep our students and communities healthy and safe.”

Information: Links to join the Zoom consultations on re-opening the BIE schools can be found here

Navajo Times | Sharon Chischilly
Sandra Sleuth hands out grab-and-go meals outside Gallup High School on March 23. Schools across the Navajo Nation are preparing to re-open next month, with adjustments to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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


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