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Students On The Navajo Nation In Utah Are Finally Getting Internet Service At Home

A man sits in front of a computer with broadcasting equipment.
Kate Groetzinger
Boyd Silversmith teaches physical education at Whitehorse High School. The 7th through 12th grade school has around 280 students. Only 30% have reliable internet at home.

The San Juan School District is close to completing a project to bring the internet to its students on the Navajo Nation. Not all students are online yet, but teachers said it’s already making a difference.

The school district built more than 100 radio towers around the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, according to Superintendent Ron Nielson. He presented the $5 million project to staff from the state board of education Monday.

“You’re going to see that some of the areas that this infrastructure can reach are very, very remote: behind monuments and up draws and down in canyons,” Nielson said.“ And to get a signal to all these areas is pretty monumental.”

A group of people stand behind a red ribbon in a boardroom. One woman in the middle is cutting the ribbon with a pair of scissors.
Kate Groetzinger
San Juan School Board president Lori Maughan cuts a ribbon to signify the completion of a project to bring the internet into the homes of over 500 students. The district presented the project to representatives from the Utah State Board of Education on March 8, 2021.

Students on the Navajo Nation in Utah have struggled to learn at home this year without reliable access to the internet, according to the principals of both high schools on the reservation. The school district sent home wireless hotspots and laptops with each student last spring, but they didn’t work well enough to stream video.

At Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek, only around 30% of students are online consistently. And at Monument Valley High School that number is somewhere around 50%. So teachers and students have had to work hard to connect with each other.

“Being able to have the [internet] project up and running would benefit our students tremendously,” said Coerina Fife, principal at Monument Valley High School. “Right now, they have to drive to Wi-Fi towers or hotspot areas or the school in order to access the internet.”

Fife said the school is currently sending out packets by bus to students every week, because some students don’t have any way to get online. Teachers are also only using the internet to answer questions about the material in the packets.

“That could look differently if everyone had [internet], because then you could teach new information online. But right now we don’t want to do that because we don’t want to be punitive to anyone who can’t access the wifi,” she said.

The district was exploring ways to bring the internet to students’ homes before the pandemic, but coronavirus relief funding made it possible. State lawmakers appropriated $3.9 million of the money Utah received from the CARES Act to the project, and the state board of education contributed around $900,000.

The project will eventually provide internet access to more than 500 homes, according to Nielson, which will serve over 90% of the district’s students on the Navajo Nation. Right now, he said around 10 homes are connected.

That’s allowing some students to log onto live broadcasts for the first time, according to Boyd Silversmith, who teaches at Whitehorse High School. He said he has a student who logged on to his online class for the first time in months after her house was connected to the internet project.

“The ones that have good connectivity and are able to join each broadcast, they’re doing great,” he said. “The ones that have a hard time getting connected or getting on our broadcasts — they’re the ones who are a bit behind.”

The district plans to complete the connections by the end of the semester, according to the district’s technology director, Aaron Brewer. He said it will cost anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000 to maintain the network, and they will likely need to ask state lawmakers for that money.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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