The coronavirus pandemic disrupted education across the country, leaving school districts scrambling for technology to accommodate online learning. The rush caused a national backlog for computers, according to The Associated Press, which in August tallied a combined shortage of 5 million laptops among manufacturers Lenovo, Dell and HP.Computer shortages have raised nationwide concerns about educational inequities, which are amplified in tribal communities that resisted the Bureau of Indian Education’s desire for in-person instruction in an effort to control rising cases of COVID-19. The inability to attend classes in person, coupled with the bureau’s delay in distributing emergency CARES Act funding, forced some students attending the federally-operated schools to start the new year the same way the last one ended, working on paper packets from home while getting little instruction from their teachers.At least five BIE-operated schools in Arizona, including Kaibeto, and five in other states were not prepared to start online because the bureau’s late disbursement of federal relief funding delayed purchases for needed laptops and internet hot spots in communities where fewer than half of rural households have access to broadband internet, according to interviews with more than a dozen educators, tribal leaders, parents and lawmakers.BIE schools lagged behind the rest of the country in providing online instruction after closing this year. About 45% of BIE schools offered digital learning for students, compared with 85% of public schools serving Native students, a nationwide survey conducted in late April by the National Indian Education Association showed. Adding to the challenges, limited cellular service in certain tribal communities hinders the effectiveness of wireless hot spots.Officials at the BIE and Kaibeto did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But BIE officials previously acknowledged that 95% of students in some of the agency’s schools cannot access the internet at home.Without the necessary technology and restricted from attending classes in person, Native children who attend BIE-operated schools could fall further behind their peers in traditional public schools, according to education experts.“If COVID is a real concern, and students can’t get on campus, and there’s no internet access and no computers, then you’re putting families in a situation where they’re just independently home schooling and taking care of their kids,” said Justin Reich, director of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, who studies technology’s role in the future of learning. “That’s a terrible tragedy and obviously part of the long history of the American people and the federal government not doing right by Native Americans through these schools.“
"Our teachers are strong and adaptable and missed their students very much. Our students are capable and ready. Thanks for a great first week online Eagles! #Accept #Adapt #Aspire #Achieve" – Navajo Preparatory School— BureauIndianEdu (@BureauIndianEdu) September 1, 2020
Learn more about #returntolearn here: https://t.co/XG2DZ3rpeD pic.twitter.com/5BmjqAVQoR
The technology delays, which BIE Director Tony Dearman said could in some cases extend into December, offer another example of continued failures by the bureau and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of the Interior. In August, an Arizona Republic and ProPublica investigation found that the BIE and the Interior Department did not correct deficiencies after repeated warnings that the federal government was not providing an adequate education to the more than 46,000 students attending bureau schools.The BIE, which serves about 8% of Native students across the country, directly operates about a third of the 180 schools and dormitories in its system. The remaining two-thirds are run by tribes or locally elected school boards, which have greater freedom to craft reopening plans and purchase distance-learning equipment.But tribally controlled schools still had to wait for BIE to release the federal relief funding before purchasing computers and other technology. Lance Witte, the superintendent of Lower Brule Schools in South Dakota, said he postponed the start of school by three weeks because of the funding delay.“It’s unfortunate, because our kids deserve a lot better,” Witte said.
Welcome back to school students and staff!— BureauIndianEdu (@BureauIndianEdu) September 16, 2020
Our goal is to support you as we work together to move forward collaboratively to best serve our students, our communities, and our tribes while prioritizing safety and local decision-making. #returntolearn pic.twitter.com/q4wVjejXxc
Staff members combed the school for devices but couldn’t find enough, said Dellard Curley, another board member. So on the first day of class, the school sent a letter to parents saying that students would receive paper packets of homework until October. By then, the school would have distributed at least one device per household.Siblings would need to share until November, when the school would have sufficient laptops for every student, according to the letter.“If the decision was left up to us, we would’ve had those laptops in our hands way before this,” Curley said. “Unfortunately, we have our hands tied (by BIE).”Unlike traditional public schools, which are typically funded by the state and operated at a local level, BIE-operated schools rely on the federal government for money and to order the equipment that would allow them to transition to an online environment.In March, Congress allocated more than $150 million to the BIE for coronavirus relief in its K-12 schools. The money was supposed to address immediate deficiencies: mental health services for students affected by the pandemic, protective equipment meant to ensure school buildings were safe to reopen and laptops and internet hot spots for distance learning.In its reopening plan, released in late August, the BIE said its schools would provide distance learning opportunities for all students. Children would receive laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots and solar chargers if they lived in homes with no electricity, according to the plan. Citing supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, the BIE warned that the devices might not arrive by the start of the school year.
An employee at the Tuba City Boarding School died last night, according to reliable sources. Now the Kaibeto Boarding School governing board is pleading with the @BureauIndianEdu to close all schools in the Navajo Nation completely due to #COVID19.https://t.co/PIZcTOne1N— Diné Millennials Today (@DineMillennials) April 4, 2020
Bureau of Indian Education schools on the Navajo Nation will be opening under a distance-learning plan, a stunning reversal of the Trump administration's push to hold classes in person. @BureauIndianEdu @USIndianAffairs #COVID19 #Coronavirus https://t.co/UgFX0KyvhD— indianz.com (@indianz) September 14, 2020
This story originally appeared on ProPublica and on the Arizona Republic. It is published under a Creative Commons license.
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