Navajo school district fights to overcome amid COVID-19

(Megan Marples | Cronkite News) Second-grader Winona Begaye uploads homework in her family’s vehicle near Piñon. Navajo Nation schools have remained virtual this fall because it’s too dangerous to reopen their doors. To help families with no internet or poor access get online, the Piñon Unified School District outfitted school buses with Wi-Fi.

Piñon, Arizona • One student runs 85 feet up a hill every morning, just to get a cell signal so he can call in his attendance. Another moved to Phoenix alone, after his only parent died of COVID-19, to work while going to school online.

Then there’s the high school senior who spends six hours most days doing homework in a car next to a school bus turned Wi-Fi hotspot – the only way some youths on the Navajo Nation can get assignments to their teachers.

These kids share a dream: to graduate high school, go to college, land a dream job, succeed and soar.

Even in the best of times, that dream is harder for Native American students to attain. And now, COVID-19 has brought one of the greatest challenges yet.

For them, it’s about more than missing friends or learning Zoom. All that isolation and upheaval has been accompanied by death and great loss.

Across the reservation, victims of COVID-19 include parents and grandparents, mentors and teachers. Without them, some students have lost their way or, quite literally, fallen off the map.

Said one district superintendent: “We have some kids that we just don’t know where they are.”

(Megan Marples | Cronkite News) Piñon High School science teacher James Gustafson teaches virtually from his empty classroom. Unlike their students, the school’s teachers report to campus each day, careful to wear masks and keep space between them.

Piñon, about two hours northeast of Flagstaff, Ariz., is a community of just a few hundred families who live in modest houses scattered across hills roamed by horses. A single campus accommodates the elementary, middle and high schools.

Here, on a reservation the size of West Virginia, the COVID-19 death rate has been higher than that of any U.S. state. So even as some schools reopened for in-person learning this fall, those on the Navajo reservation did not.

Without the usual 300 students, Piñon High’s hallways are unnaturally quiet. Do-not-disturb signs hang on classroom doors, indicating Zoom sessions in progress.

Inside one empty room, science teacher James Gustafson’s desk is covered with progress reports adhered to colorful construction paper. They track students’ quiz scores, and Gustafson plans to hang them in the halls for other teachers to see.

The grades are far worse than what he saw last year.

“These are ungodly low compared to how they should be,” he said, “because I’ve given the students who’ve turned nothing in – and there’s a lot of them – I’ve given the students who’ve turned nothing in a zero.”

Even before the pandemic, Native youth had the highest dropout rates in the U.S., leaving school at more than twice the rate of white children, according to federal statistics.

Likewise, the graduation rate for American Indian and Alaska Native children is the lowest in the country – 72%, compared with a national average of 85%.

“Distressing” is how a report from the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators described the state of education for K-12 schools for Native students. And the pandemic has only served to further spotlight disparities.

More than 600 of the Navajo reservation’s 173,000 residents have died from COVID-19. Compare that rate of 347 for every 100,000 people to Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest, where the death rate is 86 per 100,000 people.

The risk of returning to class is greater on the reservation, and the price of keeping schools closed is steeper.

Piñon High School Principal Timothy Nelson said COVID-19 has claimed at least six parents and two district staff members.

“Some people may think it’s a joke and it’s not a big deal,” Nelson said of the disease. “But when you’re living with it and you see it, it’s not so much a joke anymore.”

Shaken by the personal impact of the pandemic, teachers, parents and students are overcoming uncommon obstacles to learn at a distance.

District Superintendent Chris Ostgaard said only about 50% of students have some form of internet connection. Across the reservation, only a quarter of homes have broadband internet, and fewer than half even have a computer, according to census data.

Reaching those with no connection at all has been a colossal challenge. Ostgaard said enrollment has decreased by about 100 kids. Some, he said, have “disappeared, basically.”

Multiple times each week, the district sends out a fleet of buses filled with packets of paper schoolwork for students to pick up, complete and send back on the bus.

And thanks to CARES Act funding, 14 school buses have been equipped with Wi-Fi. They travel up to an hour to park where parents and students can drive up and use the internet.

“It’s creating a new normal,” Nelson said. “And as we all knew at the beginning of the school year, some things that we try are not going to work, some things are going to need to be tweaked. And some things will work.”

(Megan Marples | Cronkite News) When they aren’t working in the family vehicle, the Begaye sisters – from left, high school senior Chenoa, fourth-grader Sonora, first-grader Annabah and second-grader Winona – usually sit around the kitchen table doing schoolwork.

About 20 miles from the district campus, one of the Wi-Fi buses sits in a dusty lot. Two cars are parked beside it, and inside, four sisters – ages 6 to 17 – balance Chromebook computers on their laps and upload the day’s assignments.

Chenoa, Sonora, Winona and Annabah each have specially designed car-desks that their mother ordered from Hobby Lobby.

The girls’ parents, math teacher Beverly Mix and construction worker Dekoven Begay, have been out of work since the pandemic began. But, said Mix, “making sure my kids get online is a job … because sometimes the teacher only has like 20 minutes of class.”

Chenoa, a high school senior, dreams of attending college and hopes to work for the FBI. She’s been trying to stay on track but said getting feedback on schoolwork is challenging at a distance.

“It causes a lot of stress, because you don’t know what you’ve done and how you can do better at it.”

Chenoa hasn’t seen her friends in person for six months but talks to them by phone and FaceTime. She said many of them, including her best friend, lack the support system her family provides.

“I call her my twin, because we were born on the same day,” Chenoa said of her friend, who has no reliable internet connection. Chenoa had to persuade her to reenroll in school after she dropped out.

Chenoa’s family has satellite internet, but it’s too slow to download big files or stream videos simultaneously. So they spend about 20 hours a week parked by the school bus.

Other than that, Chenoa barely leaves the house. “The thing I miss most,” she said, “is laughing with my friends.”

(Megan Marples | Cronkite News) As COVID-19 swept through the Navajo Nation, signs telling people to socially distance began appearing around the reservation. This one is outside the Blue Gap Mini Store.

(Megan Marples | Cronkite News) The sun rises over the Navajo Nation Reservation, which is the size of West Virginia but is home to just 173,000 people. The COVID-19 death rate on the reservation is greater than that of any U.S. state.

Unlike their students, Piñon High School’s teachers report to work each day, wearing masks. Alone in his classroom, English teacher Robert LaBarge delivers lectures into a computer.

“It’s this very strange thing,” he said, “going by these buildings and these playgrounds and these basketball courts, and there’s no one out there.”

One of his students lost his grandmother to COVID. She worked in the district, helping kids with developmental disabilities. After she died, LaBarge noticed a palpable change in her grandson.

“He’s a kid who’s always pretty upbeat,” he said. “So immediately you just sort of notice, that’s kind of gone. He’s feeling some pain.”

In a tight-knit community like this, every loss has ripple effects.

“It made it more real and surreal,” he said of the deaths of his co-workers. “It’s noticeable that there are two people missing.”

In May, researchers predicted that springtime school shutdowns would result in children returning this fall with 63% to 68% of the typical gains in reading and 37% to 50% in math, and that setbacks would likely be greater for children of color and those who live in poverty – especially those without reliable internet.

In Piñon, teachers and administrators didn’t need a paper to tell them that.

Principal Nelson mentioned one student who lost his only surviving parent to the virus and moved to Phoenix to work construction while keeping up with online coursework. He eventually returned to Piñon to live with extended family.

Gustafson, the science teacher, worries most about those students who can’t get connected – noting that many, while still technically enrolled, have not been turning in schoolwork.

The divide between the kids with and without internet is “de facto segregation,” he said.

Still, for those they can reach, the school’s online efforts have been so successful that the state granted approval for a fully online high school – the Piñon Eagles Online Academy.

“What we’ve tried to do here at Piñon High is try to take a negative,” Nelson said, “and turn it into a positive.”