During coronavirus outbreak, school buses are delivering food and homework to Utah students in rural communities

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) A school district employee changes the notification board at Bluff Elementary School to announce a two-week closure related to the coronavirus outbreak on Monday, March 16, 2020.

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Southern San Juan County • Every morning, Renae Cly’s two kids stand in the red dirt driveway in front of their house and wait for the school bus to arrive — but when it gets there, they don’t hop on.

Instead, the driver opens the doors and hands out a paper homework packet for each of them, along with two sack lunches. They go back inside. And he drives on to the next home, miles away, becoming a yellow speck among the sandstone buttes.

Here in rural San Juan County, this is how education is moving forward during the coronavirus pandemic. All K-12 schools across the state have been ordered to shut down and transition their instruction online, if possible, to avoid spreading the infection. But in this remote corner of Utah, there’s little internet access. Most students don’t have a computer, and some live more than an hour away from the nearest town where there’s a library.

It presents a particular challenge for learning in an already challenging time.

“I fear kids like mine will be impacted the most by all of this,” Cly said. “It’s all dirt roads, and it’s hard to get a hold of people. There’s a signal here and there. But where we live on the reservation, there’s no Wi-Fi access.”

Cly’s fourth grader goes to Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary School, and her 10th grader goes to Monument Valley High School. Both are in San Juan County School District and sit on the Navajo Nation.

Typically, her kids would ride the bus in the morning to their schools. It’s only 7 miles, but it becomes a 45-minute commute because of the rough, rocky roads. Now the bus brings their homework to them instead. It arrives a few minutes after 8 a.m.

The district says it’s the best workaround that administrators can figure out for right now. They want to make sure that kids are continuing their education and getting food; they also want to observe proper social distancing as the virus spreads. There are more than 120 confirmed coronavirus cases on the Navajo Nation, with the epicenter of the outbreak just 30 miles south of Monument Valley in Chilchinbeto, Ariz.

But they know, too, that many families don’t have cars to pick up the packets themselves. Some don’t even have electricity. A few parents only speak Diné bizaad and no English. And the so-called “distance learning” has further exposed the already deep inequities here and in other rural communities throughout Utah where the “distance” part is what actually makes it an even bigger problem.

“I made phone calls today and half of my students have no internet, and I would gather this is similar throughout the school,” Amanda Lincoln, a kindergarten teacher at Montezuma Creek Elementary, said last week.

Cly said her kids are getting along, for now, but she worries, too, because she can’t help them with their homework.

“We are not able to assist our daughter that’s in high school because of the lack of education that we have,” she said. “It’s complicated because we don’t know the math that she’s doing.”

That’s harder, still, when they can’t email the school or Google for help with no internet service and calls drop unless they walk out to the hill behind their house. Her daughter has been leaving some questions blank, and Cly wonders how harshly she’ll be graded — if teachers end up grading at all.

Tara Benally said her four kids are struggling to complete their homework, too. They have no Wi-Fi and can’t go to community centers where there is access because of the restrictions on large groups as the virus spreads.

They range in age from 10 to 17, and while she believes schools are doing their best, she doesn’t think the county has the necessary resources for this kind of education.

“I’m worried about them getting behind,” she said.

(Photo courtesy of Doug Freed) Monument Valley High School history and social studies teacher Steve Dyer, left, delivers assignments to Precious Bedonie on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Breakfast and lunch was also delivered to the students. Food deliveries will continue each school day.

Doug Freed, a language arts and journalism teacher at Monument Valley High School, acknowledged the hurdles, but referred to the plan as a “fairly elegant low-tech solution.”

“I'm really impressed with the way this is working, and I'm even more impressed with the staff around here,” he said. “Everybody started cranking out last-minute lesson plans and the office staff went crazy, building files for every student and putting them in boxes.”

For the kids that need it, the buses also drop off breakfast and lunch. And educators have been assisting kitchen staff in preparing those every day.

“The teachers are on a rotation,” Freed said. “We go out on the bus one day, and the next day we help package the food. The third day we have time to work on our [lesson] plans. It's a new, unusual normal.”

In addition to the connectivity issues, San Juan County has the highest poverty rate in the state. All 3,000 students in the district are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. Many families rely on it.

Matthew Keyes, the director of human resources and safety operations for the district, said the students in the county are spread out over 12 schools and 8,000 square miles — making it also the largest geographic school district in the state.

For those that can walk, they can still pick up meals at their neighborhood schools.

“It all definitely results in unique challenges," Keyes said. "We’re just hanging on.”

Already, some families have to drive a few miles to meet the bus, and for those experiencing economic hardship related to the outbreak, the cost of gas can compete with other necessities.

Freed noted the home deliveries, though, have some certain advantages over online learning curriculums being developed in other school districts. The buses are able to deliver band instruments to students, for example, and to talk to students and their families face-to-face — albeit 6 feet apart with proper social distancing — which he’s missed since schools closed March 16.

Other rural districts in the state are following suit, too, and dealing with the same dilemmas of Wi-Fi and wide spaces.

Washington County School District, on the other side of southern Utah, is delivering lunches via bus. On the first day it tried, it handed out 9,000. “A couple stops ran short of meals and drivers quickly made a second trip,” the district noted in a Facebook post.

(Photo Courtesy of Washington County School District) Kids grab breakfast from the bus in Washington County School District on Monday, March 23, 2020.

Carbon School District, which includes the coal town of Price, starts making meals at 5:30 a.m. and keeps with its regular bus schedule to pass them out.

To deal with internet issues, Millard School District in west-central Utah has parked its buses in neighborhoods in Delta and Fillmore and supplied them with a strong Wi-Fi hotspot so that students can connect and do their homework. They’ve also worked with local businesses to boost their signals. And all of their students can check out a laptop while they’re at home.

“We’ve known that about 14% of our population doesn’t have internet,” said Superintendent David Styler. “For the circumstances we’re in — that no one asked for or desired — we have done as well as we could have ever hoped.”

Cly said she appreciates the efforts of hers and other school districts stuck in a chaotic situation.

But she can’t wait for the day that her kids can stand in the driveway waiting for the school bus again and actually be able to hop on when it gets to their house.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.