Navajo School, Students Fight to Endure COVID-19

08 December 2020

One student runs 26 meters up a hill every morning to get a telephone signal so he can report into the virtual school day. Another moved alone to Phoenix, Arizona, for a job as a builder after his only parent died. He continued his studies online there. And then there is the student who spends six hours most days doing schoolwork in a car next to a school bus that offers Wi-Fi.

COVID-19 has created severe difficulty for Navajo Nation students. Across the reservation, victims of COVD-19 include parents and grandparents, guardians and providers, school advisors and teachers. Without them, some students have fallen behind or even disappeared from school.

One local school official said, "We have some [children] that we just don't know where they are."

The pandemic has forced students at Pi<I>&#</i>241;on High School to attend school virtually, leaving vacant the once-bustling cafeteria, shown in Pinon, Ariz., on Sept. 24, 2020. (Megan Marples/Cronkite News via AP)
The pandemic has forced students at Pi&#241;on High School to attend school virtually, leaving vacant the once-bustling cafeteria, shown in Pinon, Ariz., on Sept. 24, 2020. (Megan Marples/Cronkite News via AP)

A district's survival

Just a few hundred families live in the town of Pi&#241;on in Arizona. Their houses are spread over small desert hills. A single group of buildings houses the school for children of all K-12 grade levels.

On the Navajo reservation, the COVID-19 death rate has been higher than any U.S. state. So as some U.S. schools reopened for in-person learning this fall, those on the Navajo reservation did not.

Unlike their students, Pi&#241;on High School's teachers report to work in person each day. They are careful to wear face coverings and stay as socially distant as possible.

Science teacher James Gustafson says student performance is suffering. Their marks are far lower than what he saw last year.

"I've given the students who've turned nothing in – and there's a lot of them – a zero," he said.

Even before the coronavirus crisis, Native young people had the highest dropout rates in the U.S. Only about 72 percent of Native American and Alaska Native students complete high school. The national average is 85 percent.

The National Caucus of Native American State Legislators says the state of education for K-12 schools for Native students is worrisome. And the coronavirus crisis has only served to worsen the problem.

More than 600 of the Navajo Nation's 173,000 people have died from COVID-19. That is 347 deaths for every 100,000 people. Yet, in Arizona's largest county – Maricopa County – the death rate is 86 per 100,000 people.

Timothy Nelson leads Pi&#241;on High School. He said COVID-19 has killed at least six parents of students, a teaching assistant and a school office worker.

"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."

Darrick Franklin is an education program manager with the Department of Diné Education. He spent months working with officials in New Mexico and Arizona to keep schools on the reservation closed.

The goal, he said, is to "protect the Navajo people" – a feeling shared across Navajo leadership. In August, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez issued a statement urging schools to stay online until at least 2021.

Teachers, parents and students are overcoming huge barriers to learn at a distance.

Chris Ostgaard is the superintendent, or top official, of the Pi&#241;on school system. He said only about 50 percent of students have some form of internet connection. That includes slow connections and those only on cellphones.

High speed internet service is found in about 25 percent of homes on the reservation. Less than half of the homes have a computer, federal data shows.

Reaching students with no connection at all has been a serious issue. Ostgaard said enrollment across the three schools has decreased by about 100 students from last year. Some, he said, have "disappeared, basically."

Several times each week, the school system sends out buses filled with paper schoolwork for students to pick up.

With federal aid for COVID-19, the district got 14 buses equipped with Wi-Fi internet. The buses travel up to an hour, often on dirt roads. They sit in a place where families can drive close so students can use the internet for their schoolwork.

One family's story

About 20 miles from the district school, one of those Wi-Fi buses sits across the road from a gas station. Two cars with their engines on sit beside it.

Inside, four sisters, ages 6 to 17, hold small laptop computers. They send the day's schoolwork to their teachers as their parents try to help.

Their parents are math teacher Beverly Mix and construction worker Dekoven Begay. Both have been out of their paying jobs since the coronavirus crisis began.

"Making sure my kids get online is a job," Mix said. And "making sure that they understand what they're being taught [is a job]." Sometimes the teacher only gives 20 minutes of class, she noted.

Each of the Mix's four girls has a specially designed car desk that Mix bought online. Their laptops were provided by the school district.

Chenoa, the oldest daughter, is almost finished with high school. She dreams of attending a university and to one day work for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. But she said it has been hard to fill out university applications without her school advisor.

Chenoa says she has a better support system than many of her friends. But even so, the family's home internet is too weak to download large documents or connect to video programming. So they spend about 20 hours a week in their car near the Wi-Fi school bus.

At lunchtime, drivers of the Wi-Fi buses find out how many meals the gathered children need. During the pandemic, the school has been putting together take-home breakfasts and lunches for families. Some days, they give out more than 100 meals.

Still dreaming

Research in May showed that school setbacks during the pandemic would likely be worse for children of color and those who live in poverty. It found that this is especially true for the ones without dependable internet.

Gustafson, the science teacher, calls the divide between children with and without internet a form of segregation.

Ostgaard, the superintendent, said that the district has a few students that he would almost consider homeless at this point. They have lost their parent or guardian so they move from one family members' home to another.

Still, for students with the right situations, Pi&#241;on's online efforts have worked well. In fact, the state has given the district approval to use its teaching methods to open a fully online high school for any Arizona student. So when Pi&#241;on schools do reopen their doors, students will have the choice whether to return.

Even with all that they are facing, Pi&#241;on officials are still doing what they can to inspire their students about the future. Gustafson, for example, spoke recently via Zoom video to a group of students about his career.

The talk was meant to remind them that their dreams can still be realized. Or, as Gustafson says it: "Get me to the university, get me to the city and something will happen."

I'm Alice Bryant. And I'm Jill Robbins.

This story was provided to The Associated Press by Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

Wi-Fi – n. a wireless technology that lets electronic devices access, send and receive information over the Internet

reservation – n. n area of land in the U.S. that is kept separate as a place for Native Americans to live

dropout – n. a person who stops going to a school, college, etc., before finishing

data – n. facts or information used usually to calculate, analyze, or plan something

manager – n. someone who is in charge of a business or department

district – n. an area or region containing the schools that a school board is in charge of

desk – n. a piece of furniture that is like a table and often has drawers

application – n. a formal and usually written request for something, such as a job, a loan or admission to a school

segregation – n. the practice or policy of keeping people of different races, religions, etc., separate from each other

construction – n. the act or process of building something (such as a house or road)