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Rural, Native American schools seek more in-person learning

September 19, 2020 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Colton Holian’s dog didn’t eat his homework, the Wi-Fi did.

“Half of my assignments go but the other half don’t,” says Holian, 13, who has been virtually attending Navajo Nation’s Tohatchi Middle School for the past month.

Holian loves school, especially math, and was getting As and Bs last year.

Now his teachers tell his grandmother that he’s getting Cs and Ds. He’s at risk of failing physical education which, like all of his classes, is taught online.

“Right now I know my grandson ain’t learning nothing,” says grandmother Andrea Thomas, a data extractor at a medical facility.

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Thomas has to commute because the internet at her and Holian’s home is not reliable enough for her to work remotely, as some of her colleagues do. Like her work, she thinks in-person school is worth the risk for children like Holian.

“I think we need to have our kids going back to school,” Thomas said Thursday.

Holian, a sixth-grader, won’t be allowed into a classroom for the foreseeable future.

But his younger cousins could start school as soon as Monday.

On Friday, the Public Education Department gave the green light for schools in McKinley County, which includes Tohatchi Middle School. The county had been blocked from opening because it was 0.01% over one of the benchmark criteria for positivity rates.

“Because of that point-zero-one we weren’t going to open up for the hybrid model for elementary, but yesterday they said we’re okay, we’re in the green,” said Gallup-McKinley school board member Kevin Mitchell, who is also Holian’s uncle.

He said the district would open schools Monday, despite some opposition from Navajo Nation officials.

The state Public Education Department started allowing children from kindergarten through fifth grade to return to school in some districts in a hybrid model starting Sept. 8. Some urban districts like Albuquerque and Las Cruces have decided to stay online for the rest of the year, despite being marked in the “green zone” based on COVID-19 testing criteria.

Albuquerque Public Schools reports that only around 4% of students are unable to connect to the internet.

School leaders on the Navajo Nation, including Gallup-McKinley and Central Consolidated Schools, say that half or more of rural students are unable to connect to online learning.

That has exacerbated tensions with tribal communities. A lawsuit is pending over allegations that the state is falling short of a constitutional mandate to provide adequate education to indigenous, Hispanic, disabled and low-income children.

Early in the pandemic, McKinley County had the highest rate of infection, with hospitals overwhelmed, and massive lockdowns needed to reduce the spread. Now, it has one of the lowest rates in the state.

Mitchell said it’s ultimately up to parents whether they want to send their children to in-person classes starting Monday.

“Yes, everyone needs to worry about the virus,” he said. “There’s still going to be online schooling if that’s what their parents want.”

S ome counties are still in the “red zone” and are barred by the state from having any in-person classes.

Several families and a Republican lawmaker are challenging the governor’s decision to delay school reopenings in counties where the spread of the coronavirus exceeds a statistical threshold set by the state. Their lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court.

State Rep. David Gallegos of Eunice said the lawsuit alleges that the restrictions on school openings violate rights to an equal education under provisions of the state and federal constitutions and state disabilities law. One plaintiff is the mother of a girl with special needs.

To reopen classrooms, counties must have fewer than eight new daily cases on average per 100,000 residents, and a positivity rate under 5%. The seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate in New Mexico was 2.3% on Thursday, but several southeast counties don’t meet the threshold.

The governor’s office says the restrictions are geared toward ensuring a safe environment for students and teachers.

In Catron County, south of where Holian lives, positivity rates went up this week, pushing it into the red.

“However, in order to maintain consistency of operations, schools that have already reopened in Catron County will not be required to close. The goal is to prevent communities from repeatedly moving back and forth between being open and being closed,” said PED spokeswoman Judy Robinson.

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Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.