San Juan School District working to expand internet access to students on the Navajo Nation

Months before COVID-19 was discovered in China in late 2019, Aaron Brewer, the technology director for the San Juan School District in southeast Utah, was working to connect more students to home internet.

A lack of broadband and internet service providers on the northern Navajo Nation in San Juan County meant many students could only access the internet at school, limiting home learning opportunities and constraining the types of homework teachers were able to assign.

“We started to work on [a program] last summer with Whitehorse High School [in Montezuma Creek],” Brewer said. “We bought all of the eighth graders there a hotspot with data to see if we would be able to get [more home] connectivity.”

The hotspot devices use cell tower signals to bring students online, but speed and connectivity remained a problem for some homes in the rugged, rural landscape of San Juan County where cell service can be hard to come by.

“If you’re in one place, you get great reception and sometimes even 100 yards down the road, or certainly down into a canyon or behind a geographical barrier, you lose that signal,” Brewer said.

The program increased use of home internet learning tools among the eighth graders, Brewer said, and plans were made to expand hotspot availability. But when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Utah in March and schools in the district closed their doors, the program became a top priority for both parents and educators.

“I fear kids like mine will be impacted the most by all of this,” Renae Cly, a parent in Monument Valley with two students in district schools, told The Salt Lake Tribune in March. “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.”

For several weeks, teachers hand-delivered paper packets to students via the bus route, but that system presented its own challenges and was phased out later in the spring.

Brewer and his colleagues, meanwhile, scrambled to increase internet access so that students could log on for virtual lessons. In addition to providing more hotspots, the district set up access points in public places such as parking lots where students could connect to Wi-Fi and download lessons to take home.

Despite the challenges families faced with at-home learning, nearly 90% of parents on or near the Navajo Nation said they preferred holding classes virtually this fall, according to the results of a recent district survey.

San Juan County has the highest per capita rate of the coronavirus in the state of Utah, and many parents in the southern part of the county felt it was not safe for students or staff to return to the classroom when the school year starts later this month.

At a Wednesday school board meeting, Superintendent Ron Nielson presented a plan to begin the semester with 100% virtual instruction for schools in Navajo Mountain, Monument Valley, Montezuma Creek and Bluff, citing support from numerous elected leaders on the northern Navajo Nation, including chapter leaders and the Utah Navajo Commission. (Over 70% of parents whose students attend school in Monticello and Blanding, on the other hand, said they preferred in-person learning, and classes are scheduled to start there on Aug. 24.)

Nielson said that this fall all students learning remotely will have access to a computer. “We are prepared to provide laptops, Chromebooks, and we’ve purchased over $170,000 worth of hotspots, so many, many kids will have hotspots in their homes,” Nielson told the Utah Navajo Commission on Tuesday.

“But hotspots still don’t work for all kids,” he acknowledged.

Bringing internet access to the remaining homes is a challenge. A $17.5 million, multiagency project is underway to bring fiber optic-based broadband to schools in the southern part of the county for the first time, which currently rely on slower, microwave connections. The project will increase speeds and bring the internet to more homes, but it won’t provide comprehensive coverage.

To fill the gaps, the school district requested bids for private companies to broadcast the filtered, local area network (LAN) from area schools to homes where hotspots don’t work.

Solectek, a California-based company that analyzed the feasibility of the project, said the network could be expanded to reach all student residences for $3.9 million.

“Solectek is looking at all of the towers, all of the mesas, that we could possibly use … to make our LAN internet network more far reaching than just the walls of our building,” Nielson said.

It’s an innovative solution, but Nielson noted that the district would likely not be able to fund the project without outside financial assistance. He mentioned possible partnerships with the Navajo Nation and the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development as well as the potential for assistance from federal CARES Act funds.

Brewer said that although it’s expensive, the LAN project would help students long after the coronavirus pandemic.

“This project would be one of those things that has longevity far beyond the immediate need,” Brewer said. “We have such a need for connectivity for us to be able to deliver all of the educational opportunities that exist in the district to all of our students.”

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.