Social distancing on the front lines of a forest fire

Indian Country Today

Do not put your teammates at risk say wild land fire trainers while tribes in New Mexico face a battle in court regarding education

On our Reporters' Roundtable we look at how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the wildfire season. How are crews training in this era of social distancing. And what changes will fire crews see when they are called to a forest fire? And in New Mexico there's an educational showdown brewing between tribes and the governor of New Mexico.

To talk about these issues we have Brian Bull, general assignment reporter for KLCC-FM in Eugene, Oregon, and Shaun Griswold, a reporter for New Mexico In Depth. 

Here are a few comments by Bull in Oregon: 

"We have wildfires every year but at the same time, they want to emphasize that if you feel like you're coming down with a fever or any other signs that could be potentially COVID-19 to report yourself."

"They told me that there's going to be a health technician at a lot of fire camps."

"Isolate yourself and do not put your, your teammates at risk.

"The biggest change we're going to see Patty, is we're going to see the removal of the standing buffet line. It's a very common feature at fire camps in years past. Some line up and wait your turn and get served, cafeteria style, you hold out your tray and you get your food but now they're going to make all of those meals individually."

"They're going to remove that communal experience so that firefighters, somebody grab their box, hopefully stand six feet apart from each other and enjoy their meals and fuel up. That is going to be another adjustment that a firefighter's going to face this year."

"The two elements that I remember from my reporting and involving smoke was one that wildfire smoke contained small particles particular matter that can agitate underlying health conditions."

"So firefighters kind of have that risk at hand that if they come down with COVID-19 and they have to bring in that wildfire smoke, that will be a double jeopardy, if you will."

"If they cannot contain wildfire smoke too that may drift into communities where people, with pre preexisting conditions such as lung and heart disease, their health may be further compromised. And that includes many Native communities. So as we've seen with COVID-19, there is a concern that communities of color Indigenous populations through a number of factors may already face a greater risk with COVID-19."

Here are a few comments from Griswold in New Mexico:

"The Yazzie Martinez case is a landmark education decision. The opinion came from Judge Sarah Singleton in 2018 and she ruled that New Mexico's education system was unconstitutional and it was providing inadequate education for English learning students, Native American students, at-risk students in poverty and students with special needs and that included classroom instruction curriculum that was culturally relevant.

"The state was found in violation of the Indian Education Act that New Mexico. There was just a whole wide spread of systemic issues that resulted in the foundation of the New Mexico public education system that was not properly serving these students, creating a huge education gap that has consistently placed New Mexico public education anywhere around 50 to 45 percent of ranked in the nation."

"When that decision was made, it was a court injunction that mandated that the statement of New Mexico has to provide not only adequate funding for these community populations but also curriculum based instruction that is not only in multiple languages, especially, English speaking but also traditional languages for Native American students and providing the resources and the funding to ensure that not only is the curriculum relevant to the culture of tribes but also has been expanded to provide greater education opportunities for these students."

"2019 was the first year that the state of New Mexico was to fall into guidance with this order. That was also the first year that New Mexico's Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham took office. And in her first special session, she put an incredible amount of education initiatives. Education was one of her major campaign goals in being elected."

"Out of her first session, as governor one of her, one of her very first executive orders was to replace the standardized testing model, which was controversial for a number of reasons. And so she's using that as an argument now in a case to dismiss the injunction and the guidelines and mandate through Yazzie Martinez.

She's also highlighting in her motion to dismiss the funding model and the amount of funding that has gone to education and the Mexico, since she took office New Mexico has seen almost $400 million in education spending increases for the state of New Mexico at about 18 percent addition to the budget."

"So right now, New Mexico's education is more than half the state budget and that's important to know because New Mexico recently had to do a special session to basically do a solvency bill. In January, New Mexico means for its legislature and that's when they passed their budget. The budget this January was passed with the largest budget in state history, $7.7 billion. That was when the state was flushed with oil and gas revenue had a lot of alternatives to be able to spend money and to spend it and to target some of these populations. Then COVID hit."

"The state has to deal with up to $2 billion in revenue shortfall. That was what the special session solvency bill was. Now, the state cuts $700 million in spending last week when they passed their solvency bill, $200 million of that was in education spending."

"The concern right now for advocates who are one hoping that Yazzie Martinez guidelines are still going to be followed for the upcoming school year, is that the education initiatives for dual language programs, for mentorship programs, for extended learning programs, for programs that have been tied to support the education needs and the goals of the student population that hasn't been met the before."

"Everything across the board in New Mexico saw a reduction in funding with this new bill. So nothing was immune to it but then you look at some programs in particular, there was a curriculum initiative for multicultural curriculum that was expected to see an $8 million increase in spending. That was cut. So instead of the $8 million in this program that was going to provide a culturally relevant and language curriculum for Native American students, English learning students, is going to be down to $1 million in budget."

"For this upcoming school year, the concern is will these education initiatives continue to stay funded? And then looking towards January where, depending on what happens with the motion to this Yazzie case what support will New Mexico provide to these students?"

"The governor wants to be able to provide her own initiatives for these students, which she has highlighted in three areas in her motion to dismiss. One, being education funding, one being programmatic changes, which is including she's increased the amount of administration, tribal liaison, and built a stronger relationship between the state and tribal schools. 

"This is definitely a surprise for the tribes. Every tribal leadership from Navajo Nation to the Mescalero Apache, as well as every governor from the pueblos in New Mexico are opposed to this motion to dismiss the Yazzie Martinez case."

"Their concern is that without accountability and without any court oversight, there's no guarantee that the state of New Mexico will adhere to the education initiatives."

"So for them (tribes), that protection from the court is very essential to maintain the education initiatives, especially with what's going on with COVID-19."

"The hearing is going to be on Monday. It's going to be one o'clock mountain time, it's a four hour hearing. You're going to hear four motions in the case. The major motion being for the state of New Mexico, filing a motion to get out of this case and to dismiss the case."

Also in the newscast, Jourdan Bennett-Begaye has the latest numbers of positive COVID-19 tests in Indian Country.

The anchor and executive producer of the newscast is Patty Talahongva.

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