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Kate Groetzinger
KUER-FM / Associated Press

BLUFF, Utah — Georgiana Simpson is an art teacher at Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek, Utah, a small community on the Navajo Nation. But since March, She's been working from her home 20 minutes away in Bluff.

She set up a makeshift studio there full of art supplies in colorful drawers, and she hung posters on the wall behind her standing desk, KUER-FM reported. That's where she broadcasts video lessons for her students.

On a recent Monday morning, she introduced an art assignment related to evolution.

"I want you to imagine a bird-like animal, and it cannot fly, the food it needs is found in tall trees. What adaptations does that animal need to survive?" she asked her students.

She showed them an example of an animal she drew. It had a chicken head and a long, scaly body, along with bright green with yellow polka dots. And it stood upright on two legs. Then, she asked them to draw their own.

"Are you going to draw a local animal, or are you going to create a new animal that's adapted to droughts or wildfires?"

By the end of the lesson the students were excited to start. They posted ideas in the chat box, like a mule deer or a lion with hooves. But only 8 of her 18 students were able to get on the call.

Mortality due to COVID-19 is around five times higher in San Juan County than in the rest of the state of Utah. That's mostly due to a high number of deaths on the Navajo Nation. So parents there are not ready to send their children back to school, despite the fact that poor internet access has made at-home schooling on the Navajo Nation difficult.

To fix that, the San Juan School District is working on a $4 million project. But until that's finished, teachers and parents on the reservation have had to find creative ways to help students learn — and their efforts appear to be paying off.

Only around 30 percent of the 289 students at Whitehorse have reliable access to the internet, according to Whitehorse Principal Kim Shaefer, due to a combination of poverty and poor infrastructure in the area.

So, the school has been delivering paper packets to every student, twice a semester, since March. But Shaefer said the school isn't allowed to accept the packets back, due to safety concerns, so the students have to find a way to submit them.

"They're either texting photos, emailing photos, or in those times where they do go to town, then they are uploading their assignments," she said.

In some cases, she added, the students will even call in their assignments by phone.

"There's a fair amount of teachers and paraeducators accepting verbal responses, where they talk through the question, or they write down the answer and then read it to a teacher or paraeducator," she said.

Rowena Littlehat is one of those paraeducators. She's a school counselor at Whitehorse, and she said her job has always been to help students get their assignments done. But the pandemic has made that harder.

"Being in the school, interacting with scholars, it was way easier," she said. "I would stand in the hallway and greet them and make myself visible to let them know I'm there."

Now, she has to track her students down. She said in some cases, students don't have any way to connect with her or their teachers because their parents work and they don't have their own phone.

When that happens, Littlehat drives out to their houses, some of which are 30 or 40 miles away on dirt roads.

"I honk, and I tell them, 'How far did you get? Is there anything I can help you with?'" she said.

Then she'll go over the assignment with them through the window of her car and write down all of their answers on her phone.

"When I'm done listening to them, I email the whole conversation we had to the teachers. And so they earn a grade that way," she said.

In other cases, parents are trying to find solutions to the internet problem.

Cheryl Johns has a son in 7th grade and a daughter in elementary school. The school district gave out wireless hotspots and Chromebooks to all of the students when schools closed last year, but Johns said they didn't work well enough to stream video.

"I felt so helpless because my kids were missing out on live sessions, and I was worried they could fall behind," she said.

To fix it, she and her husband bought them both iPads with wireless internet through Verizon. She said the iPads work well most days. She even set alarms on them to remind her children when they have a class.

But there are days when the internet on the iPads doesn't work, so Johns has to connect her laptop to a hotspot on her phone and let them use it.

"Out of a week, maybe once or twice I have to figure a backup," she said. "It's always trying to figure out what you can do to get them connected."

Tisheena Phillips has a similar problem. She also has a son at Whitehorse and a son at the elementary school. She said she was able to buy internet service for her home through a local provider, but the connection is spotty.

"There are days where the internet won't cooperate," she said. "Like yesterday, the internet was really slow and it was hard for them to get on."

When that happens, her children call her at the clinic where she works as a nurse. She said she can go online there and look up their assignments. Then, she either talks them through their work by phone — or helps them when she gets home.

"It's been crazy," she said. "I work 12-hour shifts. And then it's late in the evening, and you don't want to bug the teacher, and you're like, 'Okay, we'll figure this out together.'"

Despite these challenges, Shaefer said around 80 percent of the students at Whitehorse are on track to be promoted or graduate. That's just 7 percent lower than the graduation rate in 2019.

She said they had to pare down the curriculum this year because of the internet issues, so they're not asking students to master the same amount of content. But she said there is a lot of growth this year that's not captured in grades or graduation rates

"Dealing with the pandemic, our teacher and paraeducator teams have become stronger," she said. "They are able to have honest, frank conversations about what's needed."

And the students are evolving too — just like the animals Simpson asked them to draw.

Back in her studio, she went over the submissions for the assignment.

Johns' son, who excels in art, drew a lion-like animal with hooves and scales to deflect heat. Another student drew a human saving a koala from a burning tree, based on the wildfires in Australia last year.

"You see things like that and it just breaks your heart and endears you at the same time," Simpson said. "Because they're just so thoughtful in what they're trying to say."

She said some students texted her photos of their work and some turned it in online, while others talked it through with her on the phone, or in-person in their driveway from six feet away.

"We're seeing our students find these different pathways to their learning," she said. "You know, that there isn't just one way to show it. There's ways to do it visually, as well as with the language that they're developing."

So far, 12 out of 18 students have turned in the assignment. But Simpson said she's not worried about the rest, because they have her phone number — and they know how to find help if they need it.

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