COVID-19’s impact on Navajo Nation students, schools - AZEdNews
Sections    Friday March 31st, 2023

COVID-19’s impact on Navajo Nation students, schools

Kayenta Unified School District Students In Their Classroom. Photo By Brooke Martinez/ ASBA

When COVID-19 hit the Navajo Nation, it limited students’ educational opportunities after schools closed, eliminated essential school services, exposed ongoing inequities, and made health and economic hardships families face worse.

COVID-19’s impact on Navajo Nation students, schools Serena-Denetsosie-2
Serena Denetsosie

Navajo health officials said COVID-19 started spreading across the nation after a tribal member attended a basketball tournament in early March then went to a church revival the next day in Chilchinbeto, a small community south of Kayenta.

This crisis shines a spotlight on the chaos and poverty many Native Nations face daily, said Serena Denetsosie, deputy associate superintendent for the Office of Indian Education.

“COVID-19 has exposed the massive gap between reservation life and mainstream society,” Deputy Associate Supt. Denetsosie said.

“A gap where many Americans see no need for a lockdown, even protesting for the right to return to work, while our Native people frantically deal with some of the highest per capita infection and mortality rates in the country,” Denetsosie said.

Currently, the Navajo Nation has more people infected with COVID-19 per capita than any state in the United States, according to a joint effort by the American Indian Studies Center at University of California – Los Angeles and Indian County Today, as well as an Arizona Republic analysis of Navajo Nation data

The communities served by Kayenta Unified School District are labeled COVID-19 hotspots, said Lemual Adson, superintendant of the Navajo County school district that serves more than 1,700 students.

“District staff, teachers and students have been stricken by the virus, because we are a hotspot, the local Indian Health Service clinic ordered the district to cease delivery of meals to students and to cease sending instructional packets to our students due to concerns of the virus spreading,” Supt. Adson said.

In a recent survey of 506 families, “36.4% of our families have access to reliable internet and adequate tools for online learning,” said Supt. Adson, noting that public wi-fi access in the area is limited.

Online learning is not a feasible alternative for families with no electricity and no vehicle to get to a location where public wi-fi is available, Supt. Adson said.

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Lemual Adson

“For many families, the limited learning opportunities provided by the district were not a priority,” Supt. Adson said. “Families are struggling economically and medically.” 

When businesses closed, and many local economic resources shut down, “this created economic hardship for families already on a limited budget,” Supt. Adson said.

“The ongoing daily curfew and the weekend curfew have created much anxiety among all people. People are fearful,” Supt. Adson said.

But people have also become patient, understanding and they have adjusted, Supt. Adson said.

“The pandemic has exposed long-standing inequities in healthcare, education and the infrastructure needed to work through crisis,” Denetsosie said. “As a result, students and their support communities have a myriad of challenges to overcome as schools shut down,” including deaths in their families.

In these tight-knit communities, when the virus infects several people that impacts hundreds of family members, Supt. Adson said.

Many people on the Navajo Nation do not have running water or electricity, which means coronavirus “grew so rapidly because we do not have the basic necessities to take care of our health,” said Dr. Tommy Lewis, Coconino County Superintendent of Schools. “The federal government has failed to take care of basic needs such as water, utilities, sewer, technology, paved roads, housing, and many other things.”

The connection between trauma, health, and educational success is strong, Dr. Lewis said.

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Dr. Tommy Lewis

“Children affected by trauma, adversity and toxic stress may be severely compromised in their ability to regulate emotions and behavior, take in and process new information, and interact effectively with peers and adults,” Dr. Lewis said.

“These capacities are fundamental to children’s access to learning, academic achievement, and participating in and benefitting from positive adult and peer relationships,” Dr. Lewis said.

Schools in Coconino County and the Navajo Nation serve students with high-intensity social, emotional, behavioral and learning needs, as a result of past experiences with traumatic events, Dr. Lewis said.

“Schools lack the resources and training to respond to students’ complex needs, which has led to an increase in secondary traumatic stress among educators and members of the school community,” Dr. Lewis said, noting that COVID-19 magnifies these challenges. 

How the community has come together

Despite the challenges, Navajo Nation communities have come together to solve some issues affecting student learning.

“To overcome the communication barriers, OIE worked with a handful of Tribal Radio stations to promote so the Arizona Department of Education could communicate with families and students directly over radio waves,” Denetsosie said.

A local wireless provider installed two access points to Kayenta Unified School District with free wi-fi to boost the limited internet infrastructure in the area to provide access to families and staff that reside in district housing, and Northern Arizona University worked in partnership with Coconino County’s Information Technology department to install hotspots in various places.

Many Navajo Nation parents drove their children miles away from home to connect to the internet, but those without  transportation did not, Dr. Lewis said.

“The delivery of learning opportunities has been difficult,” Supt. Adson said. “Teaching staff and administrators worked tirelessly to do the best they could. Phone calls, text messages, and email were used to contact families and students.” 

Families did the best they could with the technology, tools and connectivity that they have, Supt. Adson said. 

Many schools in rural and isolated areas have no internet connection, and some students do not have computers at home.

In other homes, “students and parents suffered a lot because there may be only one computer for four or five siblings who needed to log on to do their homework,” Dr. Lewis said.

“Distance learning did not work well,” said Dr. Lewis. “The human touch and personal interaction of a teacher was not there, so students struggled.”

“It was most difficult for students were not ready for independent learning,” Dr. Lewis said.

Seeking ways to help the Navajo Nation deal with COVID-19? Consider donating to these organizations:

Kayenta, Dennehotso, and Chilchinbeto chapter houses in partnership with Kayenta Township worked with Kayenta Unified to distribute St. Mary Food Bank items to families, Supt. Adson said.

“Most recently the Notah Begay III Foundation donated food boxes and water to assist the community. The foundation partered with Kayenta Unified School District to distribute the items,” Supt. Adson said. 

Also, Dzil Asdzaan Command Center, which is the sisterhood of Orenda Tribe, First Nations Clinic, Lani Rhys Collective, BYellowtail, and Navajo Hopi Relief Fund, donated 1,920 full care kits with enough food to make eight full meals that will be delivered by Kayenta Unified staff, Supt. Adson said. The Dzil Asdzaan Command Center also donated 2,000 masks to Kayenta Unified.

The Arizona Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education, School Health and Nutrition to the Department of Economic Security, The Baylor Program and USDA’s Farmers Food to You and Navajo Nation’s Department of Dine Education collaborated with ADE’s School Nutrition program specialists to perform extra outreach to schools to ensure families had access to healthy food for their students, Denetsosie said.

“ADE collaborated with DES’s Tribal liaison to ensure a 95% sign up of schools for the SNAP PEBT resource,” Denetsosie said. “Baylor Program has 24 Navajo Nation schools signed up.”

Also, ADE’s Project Aware and School Safety & Social Wellness teams collaborated with AHCCCS to share crisis and teen suicide resources with Tribal radio stations that will air soon, Denetsosie said.

What the state, feds are doing to help

All Arizona public-school districts including Navajo Nation ones will receive funding from the CARES Act.

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Chris Kotterman

“It is based on the district’s share of Title I funding as a percentage of the state total so it varies, but in general it is between about 72% to 75% of their overall Title I amount,” said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association.

In addition, about $600 million in direct aid to tribes went to the Navajo Nation, $46 million went to the Bureau of Indian Education for all BIE schools nationwide, and $23 million went to tribal colleges and universities, for which Dine College may qualify, Kotterman said.

ASBA is urging lawmakers to take up Legislation allowing school districts statewide, including on the Navajo Nation, flexibility to allow them to maintain funding levels, Kotterman said.

“The state does not have any jurisdiction to dictate tribal government actions, nor should it, but the Legislature can help by providing resources to education, healthcare, and public safety entities that serve the Navajo Nation,” Kotterman said. “Ensuring those institutions’ needs are met will allow tribal officials to focus their energy where it is most needed.”

“Public schools play a vital role as hubs for students throughout the state, but especially in rural Arizona, and we are seeing that in the districts on and around the Navajo Nation,” Kotterman said.

“Families depend on the stability of the school system in good times, and especially in bad,” Kotterman said. “We have got to be there for the community when they need us, and ASBA is working as hard as it can to make sure schools have the resources to do that.”

Supt. Adson said if legislation similar to House Bill 2910 “could be created perhaps for a few weeks to start the school year that would greatly reduce anxiety for employees and families.”

“As we adapt and acclimate to new health standards during the COVID-19 pandemic, we anticipate a significant percentage of parents will not send their children to school until COVID-19 testing is widespread and/or a vaccination is developed and deployed, conditions that are out of the control of school systems,” Supt. Adson said.

“Some estimate as many as 10% to 20% of all students may not return to school, despite the anticipation of starting the school year on time,” Supt. Adson said. “Should school delays occur, we anticipate some students and families may prefer home-based instruction.”

“The prospect of instability in enrollment will result in a loss of funding which will impact people, programs, positions, and the overall quality of educational services schools are able to provide,” Supt. Adson said.

“Arizona public districts, providing educational services during the 2020-21 school year, must be granted full Average Daily Membership for each registered student that the district will educate regardless of the modality in which the student is being educated – online, brick and mortar, blended models, or any other model that can be provided by the school district,” Supt. Adson said.

Kayenta Unified transports about 1,100 students on 38 bus routes each day.

“If the school opens on a staggered schedule to promote social distancing, it is possible for the buses to double the number of daily bus runs.  The extra mileage must be funded,” Supt. Adson said. 

While Gov. Doug Ducey may have flexibility with COVID-19 relief money given to the state, no comprehensive plan for has been developed yet. Instead, state government has provided available personal protective to Navajo Nation healthcare workers and sent a shipment of 30,000 liters of water, Kotterman said.

The state legislators, governor, and Arizona Department of Education need to come together and build strong ties and understanding in dealing with this pandemic, Dr. Lewis said.

“The State has to build a strong network of supporters and donors to address this big problem,” Dr. Lewis said. “There has to be hard money put aside to deal with this problem now and in the future.”

“There has to be strong commitment from the state so schools can feel secure and confident that they can concentrate on student needs and not be burdened by financial and programmatic solutions,” Dr. Lewis said.

There are three key state policy areas to support schools with reopening and COVID-19 recovery efforts, Denetsosie said.

First, provide public schools financial stability for FY21 so they can continue to support the academic, social and emotional well-being of students and provide vital community services and help create a state mechanism to provide that fiscal stability, Denetsosie said.

Protect recovery dollars so public schools are able to leverage federal CARES Act funding for one-time recovery purposes, such as purchasing technology devices and hardware, versus supplanting funds as a result of state budget cuts to education,” Denetsosie said.

Adopt a statewide contingency plan for future situations where public schools may need to shut down operations on a case-by-case basis due to regional outbreaks, Denetsosie said.

“In those situations, public schools would have assurances from the state that they can maintain pay for staff and have flexibility to make educational and operational decisions in the best interest of their communities,” Denetsosie said.

Also, the Arizona Department of Education and stakeholders have long advocated for state resources to support Arizona’s Office of Indian Education,which is housed at the ADE under A.R.S 15-244.

“An investment by the State would provide needed capacity to more thoroughly and nimbly respond to the many unique programmatic needs of native students, families, and educators across the state,” Denetsosie said. “COVID-19 is an example of how a global pandemic impacts tribal nations in a disparate way, and therefore requires needs specialized and equitable supports.”

Schools’ greatest needs

Kayenta Unified’s biggest need is to create a sense of trust that the district will provide a safe and sanitized environment for when students return to school, Supt. Adson said

“The district recognizes the need for a careful and thoughtful plan to reopen,” Supt. Adson said.

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Kayenta Unified School District students in their classroom. Photo by Brooke Martinez/ ASBA

“Childcare is a great need now,” Supt. Adson said, noting that many families depend on relatives to help with childcare. “Communities must come together to find solutions to this need.”

Native schools already struggle with lower grade averages and test scores, and the limited support and encouragement that teachers can provide remotely, as well as the elimination of schedules and structure may further set students back, Denetsosie said. 

“Returning students will need additional support from the  mental health community and traditional practitioners so they can return to educational instruction,” Denetsosie said.

That includes emotional and mental well-being support for students, teachers and caregivers, laptops and/or tablets for continued distance learning, solar panels for charging devices and remote internet access, Denetsosie said.

Schools need to assist students and parents in becoming trauma-informed, Dr. Lewis said.

“Trauma-informed schools support the social, emotional and behavioral/mental health of all students, respond to the more intense needs of students impacted by trauma and adversity, facilitate access to additional behavioral/mental health services, improve the health and educational outcomes of students and communities, and improve the mental health and wellbeing of educators,” Dr. Lewis said. 

Schools need to increase access to mental health services that support academic success by developing strategic partnerships with community providers, creating individualized school trauma-informed plans, training school staff and students to respond to mental health needs, and providing specialized training for school staff and families to respond to on-campus mental health needs, Dr. Lewis said. 

More urban areas of the Navajo Nation need more reliable, stable internet and unlimited fiber accessibility.

“The urban areas with some connectivity are overwhelming the system and data becomes limited and unstable,” Supt. Adson said. “Chapter houses, the Navajo Nation, and technology corporations must collaborate to meet the needs of many with limited or no connectivity.” 

“Cell phone towers need to be placed in isolated areas in which there are clusters of families so they too can have access,” Supt. Adson said. 

People with means can help Navajo Nation communities with donations of food, water, hand sanitizers, and face masks, Supt. Adson said. 

“The families and areas most in need are those isolated families with no reliable means of transport to distribution locations,” Supt. Adson said. “Delivery to the outlying remote areas can have an impact on children and families.”

Many families depend on the school for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and they are now without the stability of food items that have become scarce, Supt. Adson said.

“The Diné (Navajo) are proud people,” Denetsosie said. “One that, despite a challenging history with government relations, gave to it their most sacred weapon to help win World War II –  their language.”

“The Diné are brilliant, hardworking, courageous, resilient and always seeking Hózhó – beauty, harmony and balance. But today, the Navajo Nation and all Native Nations need support,” Denetsosie said.  

“My father, Lester Denetsosie Sr., once told me, ‘We are all Five-Fingered Beings, we all matter,’” Denetsosie said. “Now it is time for all Five-Fingered Beings to come together.”

“Together, through transparency, flexibility, change of systems, role modeling of leaders, communities and Five-Fingered Beings helping and supporting each other, this time can be transformative and a beacon of hope, not just for Navajo students but all indigenous students­­­­,” Denetsosie said.