How teachers are coping with spotty internet to teach kids at Bluff Elementary School during COVID

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bluff Elementary School Principal Barbara Silversmith (right) and secretary Fenesia Manygoats stand outside the new school building on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

Bluff • When the new, $10 million Bluff Elementary School in San Juan County opened its doors to the public for the first time in August, there was no rush of students through its hallways, no squeaks of sneakers on the cafeteria floors, nothing but wind to push its swing sets.

Construction began on the new school building early last year, long before COVID-19 was first identified, and its completion in August coincided with a district decision to start the 2020-2021 year with entirely remote instruction for the school’s 85 students. The move was supported by the vast majority of parents whose students attend the school, according to a district survey, but it meant for a muted grand opening.

“I’m so glad to have the space and the cabinets and the room because I always felt so cramped in the other school,” said Lupe Hanson, a kindergarten teacher who has worked as an educator for 20 years. “But what’s missing are the kids and seeing their excitement at being here and being able to use that playground equipment. That, to me, is the loneliest thing ever to see that equipment not being used.”

Even though she doesn’t have a classroom full of children this year, remote instruction has meant constant work for Hanson. Her week starts on Sunday when she comes into her spacious new room and opens a laptop. In addition to the usual planning, Hanson has to figure out how to convert lessons into self-recorded videos, and she must maintain constant communication with students' families.

Weekdays begin with a Navajo language lesson for non-Navajo speaking teachers at 7:45 a.m., and Hanson, who lives nearby in Bluff, said she usually stays at the school until just before dinner time. Then she often comes back and works from 6:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kindergarten teacher Lupe Hanson explains the online platform Canvas she uses to teach her students remotely from Bluff Elementary School. Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

Other teachers who live farther away said they work a full day at school and then continue working at home. “I’m in Blanding [30 minutes away], so I don’t have the luxury of going home and then coming back to school,” said Emily Brown, a second grade teacher. "I go home, take care of my family, and then I’m on my Chromebook again correcting assignments for hours. My husband goes to bed without me, and I’m doing schoolwork.

“It’s hard, and I’m exhausted,” Brown continued. “But we keep going because ... I love these kids. I’ve built relationships with them, their families, and I care about them.”

Unlike the majority of schools conducting virtual instruction in Utah, classes aren’t conducted over a livestream video platform with a teacher looking into a “classroom” of on-camera students. The vast majority of Bluff’s students live in remote homes on the northern Navajo Nation in places that don’t have enough internet bandwidth to support livestreaming.

“Little kids need to know a lot about phonemic awareness, which is the ability to hear all the different sounds,” Hanson said. “So we do lots of rhymes and chants and songs. But this is all me recording myself.”

The disconnect can be difficult to overcome, Brown said. “It’s hard to teach to a computer. I have to remember I’m teaching to my kids, even though I can’t see them.”

After videos have been recorded, teachers answer emails and phone calls from students and parents or, in some cases, they meet one-on-one with families in the cafeteria, masked and socially distant. Parents can monitor their child’s progress through an app, but the teachers try to check in at least once a week with every student to ensure they’re keeping up.

For many veteran teachers who have mastered in-person classroom management techniques, the virtual format and the new technology platforms have been a major adjustment, one that is partially responsible for the long work hours.

“This fall is the first time — probably since my first year of teaching — that I’ve had to fight back tears I don’t know how many times,” Hanson said. “You make your video and you save it, and then you have to compress it. And then it didn’t compress right, and you have to do it all over again. I’m not tech savvy.”

For Charity Begay, a 24-year-old, second-year teacher from the nearby Navajo Nation community of Dennehotso, Ariz., the technology has been easier to manage, and she’s spent hours helping other teachers with the online platform.

When Begay meets with one of her first grade student in Google Hangouts, she will use one computer to communicate over video and another to share documents. “I sometimes have three computer monitors up,” she laughed.

(Courtesy of Charity Begay) First-grade teacher Charity Begay uses three monitors to teach remotely from Bluff Elementary School.

As a college student, Begay sometimes struggled to complete assignments when she was visiting home because of poor connectivity. “I understand what it’s like not to have internet,” she said, adding the experience helps her be patient while troubleshooting with students who can’t connect for scheduled meetings.

Begay tries to decorate the online learning platform, Canvas, the way she would decorate a classroom. “Since it’s first grade, I really try to still make it fun,” she said. For October, she redesigned the platform with Halloween-themed art and a custom Bitmoji cartoon of herself posing in a costume. “One of my kids came in to school one day and he was doing [the same pose]," she said. "I went, ‘Ah, you’re doing my Bitmoji!’”

School buses go out each day at 7 a.m. to bring meals to students and to deliver homework packets. Students without any home internet receive flash drives with pre-loaded videos. The bus deliveries are a crucial part of the system, said third grade teacher LeeAnn Parker.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Second-grade teacher Emily Brown explains the contents of a packet she sends home to her students at Bluff Elementary School, who have been learning remotely since March. Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

“This is my first year [at Bluff Elementary], so the first couple of weeks I felt out of touch with understanding where the kids were at,” she said. “I actually rode the buses out to deliver lunches with the bus drivers.”

The bus route offered Parker an opportunity to meet her students face-to-face and to help them fix problems with the school-issued hotspots that connect to internet through cell phone towers.

“Sometimes it took going out there and providing that additional support," Parker said, "walking around their home and walking around their yard, even, to find a good spot, which meant, ‘OK, so this is where you’re going to be doing your homework.’”

Hotspots don’t function in roughly a quarter of Parker’s students' homes (or yards), however. The Utah Legislature appropriated $4 million in coronavirus relief funds to build new towers needed to connect all San Juan School District students at home, and while the project is in its early stages of construction, the flash drives will likely be needed for several more months for some students.

In addition to delivering meals and worksheets, teachers use the buses to send out fun activities: pumpkins for decorating or an art project.

“There’s something each week that I’m trying to get them excited to do,” Begay said. “I try to involve that artistic side of them, and they get so excited to share those videos [of their art projects] with me.”

Slowly, the teachers said they’re starting to find a routine in the new system. “We have a feeling that everything is new, but we’re learning it again,” said Bluff Elementary School Principal Barbara Silversmith. "Of course, we’re resorting to our resources that have worked in the past, but helping teachers navigate [the remote learning] takes a team effort from the principal to the teachers to the office staff to the cooks.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bluff Elementary School under construction on June 22, 2020.

“I am in awe of my teachers,” Silversmith added. “They have done amazing in the way that they’ve delivered their instruction, in the way that they adjust to meet the needs of the students.”

San Juan County, like much of Utah, is experiencing a surge in new coronavirus cases and it’s not clear when the students will be able to return to in-person classes. But Silversmith and her staff are looking forward to that day, whenever it comes.

“The new school is beautiful,” she said. “It is just awesome to be in it, but we’re missing the children; we’re missing our kids. We want them to be here in the building so they can enjoy it and we can enjoy it with them.”

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.