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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Parental Choice Will Drive Reopening Of Schools On Navajo Nation

Bags full of papers and other supplies are lined up on tables in a hallway.
Kate Groetzinger
Students at Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek, Utah receive supply bags with paper lessons each quarter. Classes there have been fully virtual since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year.

The Navajo Nation is considering lifting a restriction on in-person education. That would allow schools in San Juan County that serve Navajo students to reopen, but only if parents are ready.

The Nation moved from its red risk phase down to orange two weeks ago, following a steep decline in new COVID-19 cases. Now, the tribe’s legislative branch is considering a bill that would allow schools to bring some students back into the classroom.

But some parents are worried it’s still too soon to return to in-person learning. Cheryl Johns has a son in middle school and a daughter in elementary in Montezuma Creek, Utah.

“My daughter, for one, she gets sick easily. I don’t want to send her back, especially if other children’s parents aren’t vaccinated,” she said.

Johns is a stay-at-home mother and has been able to help her children keep up with their schoolwork. She and her husband also had enough money to purchase iPads with internet service for their children to attend classes online.

But said she knows other parents who really want to send their kids back to school, because they work full time or don’t have internet at home. And she said she would also likely send her kids back in-person if the schools only brought in around 50% of their students at a time.

That’s a possibility under the Navajo Nation’s school reopening guidelines, which require school districts to survey parents and respond to their needs with individualized reopening plans.

The guidelines specify that schools must offer an at-home learning option to all students. They also set capacity limits under each risk phase. In orange, it’s 25%, and in yellow, it’s 50%.

Schools in the southern half of the San Juan School District are making the necessary preparations to reopen, according to the district superintendent Ron Nielson, in the case that the Navajo Nation allows it. But he said it’s unclear right now how that reopening will look at each school.

“We do know there’s some opinion of ‘Let’s get these kids back in school,’ we just don't know if it's a great minority,” he said. “So the data is where we have to start to begin answering questions.”

Christy Fitzgerald is the assistant superintendent of the district’s River Region, which includes schools on and near the Navajo Nation. She said the district is planning to send out a survey this week to gather parent feedback.

Around 40% of parents wanted to send their children to school in person in August 2020, when the district last surveyed parents.

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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