Dalton Walker
Indian Country Today

With the new school year fast approaching, Angela Willeford worries about her middle school-aged daughters.

Classes start Aug. 4 at their Phoenix-area school, but the first two weeks are remote learning. What happens next remains a mystery, but Willeford’s preference is for online learning through at least October.

Still, keeping her seventh- and eighth-grade girls safe from the coronavirus in the hotspot state, which saw a surge of cases in June and July, is just one concern.

“I am worried about my teenagers’ mental health,” said Willeford, Salt River Pima-Maricopa.

Sisters Makayla Willeford, 12, left, and Sandra Willeford, 13. (Photos courtesy of Angela Willeford)

School districts across Indian Country and the nation are trying to figure out how and when they can safely bring students back to campus. Positive cases and deaths from the virus have only risen since schools shuttered in-person learning in March, and a vaccine or reliable treatment remains unavailable.

The Trump administration wants schools to reopen for full, in-person classes or see federal money reduced. Schools traditionally start back up in August or early September. Some districts have shared reopening guidelines, and many are likely to start with students learning virtually.

The Interior Department’s Indian Affairs agency has a web page dedicated to school reopening for the 185 Bureau of Indian Education schools. It includes a 30-page reopening guide.

“The plan is a high-level guidance document intended to support schools while allowing for local flexibility for school leaders to coordinate with their local, state, tribal and public health officials,” read an opening plan presentation.

A request for additional comment from the Bureau of Indian Education went unreturned. An email request to the Education Department was returned with a link to the bureau’s reopening guide. A handful of messages sent to individual Bureau of Indian Education schools went unreturned, or replies recommended contacting the bureau.

The bureau also issued a 24-question survey for parents with a July deadline. Questions range from preference on in-person vs. distance learning to asking if a computer is available in the home.

“BIE is currently preparing for school year 2020-2021 and at this juncture, considering the current circumstances, we are unsure of what kind of delivery model will be in place at the beginning of the school year,” read the survey’s intro.

Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico, both under the Bureau of Indian Education, are offering only online courses this fall.

Not all reservation schools are Bureau of Indian Education schools. Some are public schools and follow the guidance of state education leaders. To search bureau schools, click here.

Parent Tetona Dunlap, Shoshone, has a preschooler and a sixth-grader at home. She lives in Twin Falls, Idaho, and has seen many people around town not wearing masks or social distancing.

“I’m scared to have my kids around their kids,” Dunlap said. “If parents don’t care, the kids probably won’t.”

Laura Crowe Fairbanks, Red Lake Nation, also has some concerns about schools reopening. She’s a parent and a college student. “No one in my household is going back to the classroom,” she said.

Hundreds of children and staff have been infected in outbreaks tied to graduation ceremonies and summer camps across the country. That’s why it’s so important, experts say, to consider the wider community and not think of schools as closed systems, unaffected by what the virus is doing outside their walls.

Children are less likely to become seriously ill than adults, and there’s not much evidence kids are driving transmission, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 Testing Insights Initiative. Still, there is a risk they could transmit the virus to others, including teachers or vulnerable people they live with.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, American Association of School Administrators and School Superintendents Association issued a joint statement on a safe return to school, asking for politics not to be a factor.

“Returning to school is important for the healthy development and well-being of children, but we must pursue re-opening in a way that is safe for all students, teachers and staff,” the statement read. “We should leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school buildings, and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.”

Schools are crucial to communities in ways that go beyond basic learning. They also provide children with friends, food and other support. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports children physically returning to classrooms.

Schools are also a key part of getting the economy going, said David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft Research.

“It’s what allows so many adults, especially people without much means, to get back to work,” Rothschild said. “There’s this huge downstream effect in the short run of getting people back into school, which you may not be able to say in the same sort of way for bars and restaurants.”

In Arizona, the top education official, Kathy Hoffman, said recently she wasn’t optimistic the state will be ready for in-person instruction Aug. 17.

San Carlos Unified School District on the San Carlos Indian Reservation in Arizona will start school Aug. 3 with online learning as part of a first phase, according to a July 8 news release.

“This phase will continue until it is determined safe to return to either a hybrid or in-person school by working with the specified local leaders and health officials,” according to the news release.

Some reservation schools in Arizona have canceled fall sports. Alchesay High School on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation, Ganada High School and St. Michael Indian School on the Navajo Nation all canceled its fall sports season.

In South Dakota, the St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Indian Reservation will more than likely offer only virtual classes this fall.

In a letter sent to parents, the St. Frances school board said the only two options were virtual learning or no school because the Rosebud Sioux Tribe is using the school’s gymnasium as a coronavirus quarantine facility through December.

“The SFIS school board believes students belong in school. However, these COVID-19 related circumstances are not normal and beyond the control of the school board,” the letter stated.

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.