‘It’s creating a new normal’

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. (Photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

Cronkite News

A Navajo school district and its students fight to overcome amid COVID-19

Anthony J. Wallace
Cronkite News

PIÑON – One student runs 85 feet up a hill every morning, just to get a cellphone signal so he can call in his attendance. Another moved to Phoenix by himself, after his only parent died of COVID-19, to work construction 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 kids on the Navajo Nation can get assignments to their teachers.

These kids share a dream: to graduate high school, find a way to go to college, get a degree, land a dream job – get out of their small town, 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 to these young people.

For them, it’s about so much more than being separated from friends or having to figure out how to use Zoom. All that isolation and upheaval has been accompanied by death and great loss.

Across the Navajo reservation, victims of COVD-19 include parents and grandparents, sole guardians and providers, 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.”

A school district fights to survive

The drive from Flagstaff northeast to Piñon takes more than two hours over a two-lane highway and dirt road. Just a few hundred families live in this community, in modest houses scattered across hills roamed by horses and dotted with brush.

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 300 students who normally fill its cafeteria, crowd its lockers and seek help in its counseling offices, Piñon High’s cavernous hallways are unnaturally quiet. Do-not-disturb signs hang on classroom doors, indicating Zoom sessions in progress.

Inside one empty room, a carpentry teacher plays heavy metal music and bobs his head at his desk. In another, science teacher James Gustafson’s lab tables are covered with surplus VHS videos that he’s sorting through for hidden gems.

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. (Photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)
Piñon High School science teacher James Gustafson teaches virtually from his empty classroom. (Photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

“‘Citizen Kane!’” he says. “That makes it all worth it.”

On Gustafson’s desk are printed progress reports adhered to colorful construction paper. They identify students anonymously by a number, tracking their scores on weekly quizzes. He’s preparing 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 percent, compared with a national average of 85 percent.

“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 – a front office worker and a teaching assistant.

“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, an education program manager with the Department of Diné Education, spent months working with officials in New Mexico and Arizona to keep schools on the reservation closed as others around them reopened or went to hybrid learning.

The focus for Franklin’s department, he said, is to “protect the Navajo people” – a sentiment shared across Navajo leadership. In August, President Jonathan Nez issued a statement urging schools to remain virtual until at least 2021 to protect the safety of students, teachers and staff members.

“At this point in time, we have to protect our children, our families, our elderly,” Franklin said. “Especially our elderly, because they are the storytellers … they are the heart of the Navajo Nation.”

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

Chris Ostgaard, superintendent of the Piñon district, said only about 50 percent of students have some form of internet connection – whether it be broadband, a slow satellite connection or just a phone with a data plan.

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 across the three schools has decreased by about 100 kids from last year. 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 money the district received as part of the federal COVID-19 relief package, 14 buses have been equipped with Wi-Fi. They travel up to an hour, often on bumpy, unpaved roads, and park where parents and students can drive up and use the internet to do homework or upload assignments.

“It’s creating a new normal,” said Nelson, the high school principal. “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.

“But we’ll just do it as we go along.”

Missing friends – and laughs

About 20 miles from the district campus, one of those Wi-Fi buses sits in a dusty lot across the road from a gas station. Two cars, their engines idling, are parked beside it.

Inside, four sisters, ages 6 to 17, balance Chromebook computers on their laps and upload the day’s assignments as their parents patiently do what they can to help.

Math teacher Beverly Mix and construction worker Dekoven Begay have been out of work since COVID-19 began ravaging the Navajo Nation last spring. But it doesn’t mean the couple aren’t working.

“Making sure my kids get online is a job,” Mix said, “and making sure that they understand what they’re being taught – because sometimes the teacher only has like 20 minutes of class.”

The bus is usually in this spot every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but at Mix’s request the driver came on a Thursday after a morning spent delivering meals to students’ homes.

Their girls – Chenoa, Sonora, Winona and Annabah – each have specially designed car-desks that Mix ordered from Hobby Lobby. Their laptops, provided by the school district, are emblazoned with a nametag and drawing of their choosing.

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. (Photo by 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. (Photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

Chenoa, a high school senior and the eldest, has a panda on her computer. An ROTC team leader, she dreams of attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas or Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – and hopes to eventually work for the FBI.

She’s been trying to stay on track but said it’s been hard to fill out college applications without being able to see her school adviser. English class is especially challenging at a distance, she said, and feedback on her work is harder to get.

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

Chenoa attends Chinle High School virtually, while her sisters and many members of her ROTC team are online in the Piñon district. She 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 lives near a mountain and has no reliable internet connection. Chenoa had to persuade her to reenroll in school after she dropped out.

Chenoa’s family has satellite internet at home, but it’s too slow to download big files or stream videos simultaneously.

Dekoven Begay watches his children (who go by the last name Begaye) play in front of their home near Piñon. Every day for the past six months, the family of six has been home together. (Photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)
Dekoven Begay watches his children (who go by the last name Begaye) play in front of their home near Piñon. (Photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

“Sometimes our internet will go down,” her father said, “and they’re stuck without going to school for a day or so.”

So they spend about 20 hours a week parked by the school bus for a better connection.

On this Thursday, the bus leaves at 3:30 p.m. and the family of six head the mile back to their home, which has been transformed into a makeshift classroom. Just inside the door is a chalkboard with the girls’ assignments. A single desk overflows with glue sticks, composition books, rulers.

When they aren’t doing schoolwork in their parents’ vehicles, the sisters usually sit around the kitchen table on their laptops together. Chenoa said she really only ever gets out of the house when she hikes or goes to see her orthodontist.

For the past six months, it’s been the six of them here every day. On the TV is a crime show, the kind Chenoa said inspired her to pursue a career in investigation.

“Most of what they do is really predictable, just following a certain rule of patterns,” she said of the criminals on the screen. “Some of them are hard to spot, and some of them are really easy to find. And I really love patterns.”

Chenoa’s favorite subject is math, and it’s her little sisters’ favorite, too.

Throughout the pandemic, she has tried to be a good role model for the girls, who are in first, second and fourth grade. The little ones share a small room packed with their favorite toys: dinosaurs for Winona, books and Pokémon cards for Sonora, and “Frozen” dolls for Annabah.

Despite all that’s happening, Chenoa holds tightly to her dreams: “Everyone wants to go to university to get their degree and come back and help their people.”

But for now, she and her sisters and parents lean on one another.

“The thing I miss most,” she said, “is laughing with my friends.”

Real and surreal

Unlike their students, Piñon High School’s teachers report to work each day, careful to wear masks and social distance. Alone in his classroom, 11th-grade English teacher Robert LaBarge delivers lectures into a computer.

“The kids always tease me for laughing at my own jokes,” he said, smiling. “But there’s no one in class! Who’s supposed to laugh at my jokes?”

In his room, chairs are stacked in a corner and books sit, unused, on shelves. LaBarge recently started sending dictionaries to students without Wi-Fi to help them with their vocabulary work.

“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. It just feels weird.”

The pandemic has forced students at Piñon High School to attend school virtually, leaving the once-bustling cafeteria and hallways vacant. (Photos by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)
The pandemic has forced students at Piñon High School to attend school virtually, leaving the once-bustling cafeteria and hallways vacant. (Photos by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

Like many of his colleagues, LaBarge makes himself available to his students however he can. He gets phone calls, texts, emails, Facebook messages, Instagram DMs. Sometimes, he said, they want to talk about schoolwork; other times, they express their feelings about living in a pandemic.

One of his students is the grandson of the high school’s teaching assistant, who died of COVID-19. She worked with kids with severe developmental disabilities and was “really funny,” LaBarge recalled, once people got to know her.

“It takes someone with a very big heart to do that kind of work,” he said.

After she died, LaBarge noticed a palpable change in her grandson.

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

In such a small and tight-knit community as Piñon, he said, 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.”

As teachers inside take their lunches alone at their desks, vehicles full of families pull up to a tent at the back of the school. Nearly every driver wears a mask and holds up fingers through their windows, signaling how many meals they need. During the pandemic, the school has been putting together take-home breakfasts and lunches for district families.

Angelica Sandoval, who has an eighth-grade son at home alone, helps hand out trays of Salisbury steak, pineapple and milk. The previous day, she said, they gave out more than 100 meals.

Unable to be with her son during the day, she can only hope he’s getting his homework done.

Life on the reservation during COVID-19, she said, is “stressful, depressing, scary.”

Still dreaming

In May, research published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University predicted that springtime school shutdowns would result in children returning for the fall semester with 63 percent to 68 percent of the typical gains in reading and 37 percent to 50 percent in math.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers noted 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 research paper to tell them that.

Principal Nelson mentioned one student in particular, who lost his only surviving parent to the virus and moved to Phoenix to work 10-hour days in construction while keeping up with online coursework. Feeling overwhelmed, he eventually returned to Piñon to live with extended family.

He isn’t the only one in that type of situation, said Ostgaard, the superintendent.

“We have a few (students) that for different reasons, I guess you would almost consider homeless at this point,” he said. “They’re kind of bouncing from relative to relative, and they’re in different places.”

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. (Photo by 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. (Photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

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.

“The students that don’t have the net, and consequently don’t have immediate feedback … on material or whatever else, they aren’t necessarily getting everything that students with the net are getting.”

Still, for those they can reach, the school’s online efforts have been so successful that the Arizona State Board of Education granted the district approval to use their approaches to virtual learning to open a fully online high school available to any Arizona student – the Piñon Eagles Online Academy.

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

And whenever the Piñon schools do reopen their doors, he added, it will be optional for students to return.

Despite all that they’re facing, Piñon officials are still doing what they can to inspire their students about the future. Gustafson, a former radiological engineer who worked at nuclear power plants, spoke recently via Zoom to a group of ROTC students about his career.

It’s motivation meant to remind them that their dreams still can be realized. Or, as Gustafson put it: “Get me to the university, get me to the city and something will happen.”

He knows his students are dealing with a lot. One, he said, had three close family members die from COVID-19 – all within a month of each other.

Still, Gustafson has faith in their resilience.

“There are students that have the dream. By golly, they do,” he said. “They are making it work, regardless. They’re doing what they can.”

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