The Bureau of Indian Education set guidelines last week for reopening that would compel at least 53 tribal schools under its jurisdiction to begin in-person teaching. The decision, which includes at least two schools in northern New Mexico, has been criticized by the union that represents teachers within the schools.
Sue Parton, president of the Bureau of Indian Education employees’ union, told NBC News, which first broke the story, that she was concerned about the possibility of the virus spreading among students, staff members and teachers.
“I just don’t think that there has been enough scientific evidence to show that it is safe for staff and students to go back to school as normal,” Parton said.
The Bureau of Indian Education manages more than 180 schools around the country, including several in northern New Mexico.
Two schools in northern New Mexico, Kinteel Residential Campus Inc. and Nenahnezad Community School, located in northern New Mexico, are examining their options for reopening or pursuing digital alternatives. The state of New Mexico has said some in-person teaching can resume on Sept. 8. An official with the Bureau of Indian Education has not responded to requests for comment.
Navajo Preparatory School, based in Farmington, is sticking to its plan to bring students back to campus virtually Aug. 18 and in a hybrid model as soon as it is deemed safe. School officials said they are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Navajo Nation and the state governments of New Mexico and Arizona.
The hybrid plan includes a variety of additional safety measures, including housing one student per residential room, and requiring masks, social distancing and temperature checks.
“All decisions are being made in the best interests of our students, our faculty and our community,” said Shawna Becenti, the head of school. “Navajo Nation has been hit hard, and we just want to respect the decisions of our community.”
Bureau of Indian Education schools are often run on reservations or in areas where there are few other school options. Some have dormitories and function as boarding schools for students who live too far away to commute back and forth.
In its guidance, the bureau asserts that, “the virus does not move, people move,” and that “(t)he challenge in society getting back to normal is people movement.” As such, it has advised schools to provide additional personal protective equipment and encourage 14-day quarantine for students returning to residence halls after being away for much of the pandemic.
According to guidelines released by the federal agency, schools are asked to put desks 6 feet apart in classrooms, provide hand sanitizer and personal protective equipment when necessary, and devise methods of scheduling classes so a limited number of students are interacting in the halls at a given time.
Jacob Wallace is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.