National Museum of the American Indian

Returning to School in Indian Country during the Pandemic

A Diné child begins her much-anticipated school year online in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Courtesy of Cornillia Sandoval, used with permission)
A Diné child begins her much-anticipated school year online in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (Courtesy of Cornillia Sandoval, used with permission)

As schools across the United States begin the new school year amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Native people face steeper obstacles than many other Americans. According to the New York Times, “The rate of known cases in the eight counties with the largest populations of Native Americans is nearly double the national average.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that Native Americans who have contracted the virus have the highest hospitalization rate of any ethnic group in the United States. Higher rates of coronavirus deaths among American Indians and Alaskan Natives have been caused by underlying health conditions such as diabetes, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure; lack of access to medical care; and many communities’ high poverty level.

Many reservations and Indian lands are located in remote areas of the United States and are among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Particularly hard hit are the Navajo Nation (New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah); Yakama Nation (Washington State); Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (Mississippi); White Mountain Apache (Arizona); Pueblos of Zia and San Felipe (New Mexico); Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, and Colorado River Indian Tribes (Arizona), according to data updated on July 20 by the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA.

To protect their members, some tribes have closed their borders to outside visitors for short periods of time. Exposure to the virus, a primary issue in many places where young people are returning to classrooms, is an even greater concern in communities where—whether by poverty or tradition— multigenerational family members share homes and may have too little space to practice social distancing. Native people fear that reopening schools will be a catalyst to bringing the coronavirus into their homes, where it will infect Native elders and at-risk family members.

According to the National Congress of American Indians, there are nearly 650,000 American Indian elementary, middle, and high school students in the United States. Ninety percent attend non-federal schools. Eight percent, however, are students at more than 50 Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools on reservations and Indian lands. The BIE, which falls within the Executive Branch as part of the Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs, has informed tribal leaders of its decision to reopen almost all non-residential schools, with a uniform start date of September 16. Students can opt for virtual learning, but instructors are expected to teach in person from school classrooms. BIE schools will move to online instruction for all students only if a coronavirus outbreak leads to a schoolwide shutdown.

In addition to poverty and health disparities, there are other issues that Natives families living on remote reservations must take into consideration. For many students, computers and the Internet are not readily accessible. Making the choice to buy food or a computer, laptop, or tablet is a real-life decision where managing expenses is a factor of survival. If a computer is available in a household, it may be shared by several family members working or studying remotely. Community libraries, schools, clinics, and tribal offices are sometimes the only source of a WIFI signal, and many homes are located miles from the nearest access point.

Taking all this into consideration, we asked Native students, teachers, parents, and school administrators across Indian Country to share their concerns about returning to school right now. Here are their replies:

Mount Pleasant, Michigan: Covid-19 disproportionately impacts Indigenous people and other minority populations. We have underlying risk factors like high rates of diabetes and obesity that make us susceptible to this disease. We also live in homes and have family structures that extend beyond the “nuclear family” and include elders. In our nations, elders are our language- and knowledge-keepers. We are putting our elders at risk by exposing our children to other students in a school setting. Our children are gifts from the Creator. It is our responsibility to keep them safe and healthy. An outbreak of Covid-19 in our tribal communities would be detrimental to our already small population.

Farmersville, California: Hello, I’m Muscogee Creek and a kindergarten teacher. We have over 10,000 cases in our small county and are on the governor’s watch list to have virtual instruction. Kids learn at home, but teachers report to their classrooms every day and teach from there. My concern is that, due to varying opinions on Covid, there is inconsistency with the precautionary measures being taken. We are still being told we need to attend large group meetings, with too many of us in one room. There are situations where social distancing isn’t possible. Our classrooms aren’t large enough to have desks spaced six feet apart when students do return. Even now, as teachers are learning new programs, there are situations where staff members have to break distancing to help one another. We are being required to report in person for a lot of things that can be done via Zoom. Kids start Monday virtually, and we aren’t ready: Not all parents have access. There are delays in getting extra hotspots here on time. Teachers are being thrown into using programs we haven’t had training for. So many issues and frustrations—it’s a mess.

Albuquerque, New Mexico: We are the highest-risk population for many reasons, [all of them] the effects of colonialism. Many of our families live in multigenerational homes with grandparents, aunties, uncles, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. Sending our children to school with the high probably of contracting Covid is setting up entire families for exposure, and a higher risk of death for those with compromised immune systems—our grandparents. There is no help for single-parent families where parents have to work outside the home either, nor for two-parent homes where both parents work. This administration has failed us all. As an Indigenous educator at an Indigenous public charter school in New Mexico, I voted against returning to school in person because I live with my mom who has all the risk factors. Thankfully our school administrators decided that the health and safety of our children, families, teachers, and other staff was most important. In the end, quality teaching and curriculum can be implemented no matter what the format.

Muckleshoot Reservation, Auburn, Washington: I am an educator here. We will be distance learning online this fall. The upside is, this protects our families who live in multigenerational homes; elders are not at risk by children possibly bringing Covid home. Regarding education, my concerns are for our families too far out to access the Internet. I will make sure they get paper packets, but it’s still not the same as getting instruction. Some subjects for high schoolers, like trigonometry or chemistry, parents may not know how to teach, and paper packets can only do so much. We are talking now about solutions for these instances. In the meantime, I will be ensuring that everyone has a Chromebook and that anyone who doesn’t have Internet can get a hotspot provided to connect to Comcast. For those who are too far out beyond Comcast’s reach, we’ll have to come up with additional solutions.

Lodge Grass, Montana: Where the Billings Metro Arena stands today, one thousand Crow people died of smallpox in a one day. No child’s life is worth risking. We know from history how to survive a pandemic: Stay apart. As a Native school administrator, I would say, “Stay closed for children’s and staff safety. Run a December-to-August school year. It should be better then.” But I retired instead.

Fairfax, Oklahoma: I’m a retired teacher on the Osage Reservation. I have three grandsons in school. They are not going back to class but doing schoolwork at home via computer. We know what death by pandemic is. We Osage people barely survived smallpox. The Indian Health Service is not well funded, and the prejudice we face at all hospitals is life threatening. This is not an exaggeration. I have personally experienced a “sentient case” in a Tulsa, Oklahoma, hospital with my father. The hospital terminology for neglectfully almost killing a patient is “sentient case.”

Topeka, Kansas: I am first-year teacher in the Topeka Public Schools. I teach in a Title 1 school, which means that all of my students are at risk and fall within or below the poverty line. This is an urban district, and I am responsible for all 6th-grade social studies. We are going to be virtual for the first two weeks, starting September 9. Then will enter Phase 2, where we bring a single grade into each building—kindergarten, 6th, and 9th. So essentially, I will be teaching my 6th graders in the school building as soon as October 1. If that goes well, the remaining grades will follow, but never for more than four days a week, with Wednesday each week virtual for deep cleaning. Families still get the opportunity to choose whether they want to go totally online, hybrid—virtual with two days in class—or in class. All of my students have Chromebooks, and the local Cox company will be helping families get Internet if they don’t already have it.

Sports camps start in about two weeks at the high-school level and likely middle-school sports in September. My school is diverse in that we are represented by Indigenous, Hispanic, African American, and white families. Northeast Kansas has a strong Indigenous population. About 40 families in my school have signed up for online instruction for the year. We have about 500 students at my school; 180 of them will be in my classes. We have a 100 percent mask requirement in Shawnee County. We’ve been given masks, and all students and staff will be required to wear them. There are lots of questions still unanswered, but our superintendent and school board are trying to answer as many as they can. In general, I think my district is trying to do as much as it can in the current pandemic, but families and educators are still apprehensive, and it’s understandable.

Massachusetts: We are grandparents with health issues raising two grandchildren. We have decided to keep them home. Both of them are in elementary school, and even though masks and distance are supposed to be in place, kids are kids. I think one child will do well with virtual learning, but she misses her friends desperately. Since the school closed in March our boy with high functioning autism has regressed quite a bit. He truly needs special education and behavioral therapy. But, again, kids are kids, and I don't think it’s safe for our family to send them to school. In Massachusetts our numbers for Covid are currently low, but they have begun to climb as more businesses have opened back up. We just can’t take the risk for their lives or ours.

Tonawanda Seneca Territory, New York: Too soon to let my kids go back to school. Thankfully I’m an experienced teacher and can home school, as can my wife. She can teach some of the Seneca language class now, too. They don’t have to miss anything. We can’t be forced by state governments. No one can.

Rapid City South Dakota: We have three kiddies enrolled at the local elementary school, with our toddler at home. The school last year provided laptops, and fortunately their teachers were on ClassDojo. They don’t have this on the reservation, and they would benefit from it. Kids have always brought a cough home, and I can guarantee you they’ll be bringing home something like this.

Oregon: I retired from the Bureau of Indian Affairs as an IT Specialist, and my grandchildren attend the Tigard­–Tualatin School District. I recently retired and will be teaching my granddaughter, who will be in the 4th grade, and my grandson, who will be in pre-K, all because the school district voted on nine weeks of online learning. We’ll see how that goes. Both parents work full time. One employer doesn’t allow time for teaching. My eldest daughter has two children, and she doesn’t have enough work hours to cover both children. So this is where grandma—me—comes in, to help them out any which way I can.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina: I’m of the opinion that educators forget that Native students and children are part of communities, and thus are vulnerable to disruptions within the educational sphere. But even one life lost means much more. The spread of the contagion could easily follow students back to the community. Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma is my affiliation, and I’m currently a PhD student in American Studies at the University of North Carolina.

Kewa Pueblo, New Mexico: I tell my kids, “I gave birth to human babies not robots.” I refuse to conform to the free Chromebooks and online learning. I want my children to get a proper Indigenous-focused education, versus the colonial cookie-cutter online learning that’s being shoved down children’s throats.

Baltimore, Maryland: I am worried about everything. My son has an underlying health condition. I don’t trust that the school has enough resources to keep our kids and parents safe. The bus rides scare me, too. I think we should shut it down until Jan 2021, then reevaluate. Luckily my particular school district is going virtual for the first half. However, if they hadn’t, we would have home schooled.

Shannon, North Carolina: This a sad and frustrating subject for me, because this so-called government has blatantly disregarded the life of our children. It’s a gamble they’re willing to take on human lives. Our children’s lives, not their kids. Their kids will be home schooled, but ours will be subject to contagion and possibly death, going back into these crowded school settings right now when the virus is nowhere near under control. Scenario: There’s very little to no social distance in the hallways of schools and school buses. All it takes is one child, teacher, or staff member, to come into a school with Covid, and they’ll they infect their whole class and all others they come into contact with. Then all those kids and other people go out and about, and then to their homes. That leaves families and community members infected with Covid-19.

Norman, Oklahoma: We do not have an option here: We are all virtual. We just received the email Sunday evening from the Norman Public Schools. Our plan was to keep our kids home anyway: We have a six-year-old who is immune-compromised, and our older son decided to stay home because of his little brother, even though it’s his senior year. We are concerned about getting the proper education at home. Our older son signed up for a self-paced program, so we will see how it goes. I’m mainly concerned with getting our Covid numbers down. Whatever we need to do to achieve that, I’m all for.

Alberta, Canada: As a grandmother of an only child who’s a single mom, I can understand some parents wanting children to return to school. For social interaction and play with others, the return is welcome.

Milan, Illinois: As a student, it’s scary not knowing who may or may not have it. We are being forced into schools filled with people. In the halls there will be no distancing. We can push back the election, but we can’t push back school for teens’ and kids’ safety?

Disautel, Washington: Lot of home school interest, but many parents need help. We home schooled one. He went on and got a Masters. But each situation’s different, of course.

Southeast Kansas: Here, the first wave is just beginning. Husband works for a school district. Daughter is a teacher. They’re predicting it will be two weeks before they shut down again. But the basis for learning will be in place for students to learn at home. Being in a rural district though, not all students will have access to the Internet. Right now, most schools are in denial. They want their kids to play football. I’m shaking my head. They had been planning to open after Labor Day. I was all for that. But no: Gotta play football! Don’t get me wrong: I have a grandson who plays. But at the cost of getting sick? No. I’m a retired nurse.

El Reno, Oklahoma: I feel virtual classes are a plus. Yeah, I’m full-blood Cheyenne Arapaho. Yes, I am told we have to have faith in the Creator for the ones who have been exposed and may be carriers. Disinfect the schools top to bottom, bleach, limit class space! This disease is serious and has taken many lives. I myself am tired of losing loved ones due to stupidity.

Dennis W. Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a member of the Kiowa Gourd Clan and San Juan Pueblo Winter Clan and a descendant of Sitting Bear and No Retreat, both principal war chiefs of the Kiowas. Dennis works as a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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