Navajo Families Without Internet Struggle To Home-School During COVID-19 Pandemic

Apr 22, 2020
Originally published on May 4, 2020 2:08 pm

Monument Valley, Utah, is the desert backdrop for many famous old Western movies. And even today, kids in the valley are doing their homework the way they did in the 1950s: offline.

"There's a lot of kids that don't have even electricity at home," said Spencer Singer, principal at Monument Valley High School. "You know, for all intents and purposes we operate in a third world-type situation."

Singer said his teachers have tried to provide work that doesn't require Internet or a computer since schools in San Juan County, Utah, closed on March 16. But as the COVID-19 infection rate on the Navajo Nation climbs — surpassing that of all but two U.S. states — schools in the district have stopped taking back paper assignments, pushing more teachers to assign work online.

That has been a struggle for families such as Celia Black's. She's raising six grandchildren, including two girls who are juniors at Monument Valley High. Black said they used to have Internet at home but ended their service because it was too expensive.

"The oldest one is more into her grades, but she's having such a hard time because the Wi-Fi [is] not here," she said.

The schools recently sent Chromebooks to all of Black's grandchildren, so they've been driving to the high school parking lot to get online. Each day they pile into a red minivan and drive 7 miles to the high school, where they work for up to four hours — or until somebody needs to go to the bathroom.

But Black said she worries about them getting kidnapped or injured when they're gone.

"You keep calling them and they get agitated, and then they say 'Grandma, I was in the middle of the work and you just called me,' " she said.

Like the Blacks, most families have to travel to access the Internet. Only 40% of homes on the Navajo Nation are online, according to Walter Haase, general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. The utility's network covers two-thirds of the reservation, which is roughly the size of West Virginia, but less than half of the population is online because of the high poverty rate.

"The per capita income of our folks is about $10,700. So even though our Internet ranges from $30 a month to $80 a month, it's still difficult for folks to afford," Haase said.

To solve that issue, schools in Utah recently ordered wireless Internet hot spots for about 200 homes — enough for most high school students who live on the Navajo Nation in the state. Aaron Brewer, technical director for the San Juan School District, said they're being sent out on buses, and the hardware and service are being provided for free.

Black's grandchildren have been driving to the Monument Valley High School parking lot to get online.
Kate Groetzinger / KUER

"If I could get it done by the end of April, that would be wonderful," he said. "My hope is we can do it sooner than that."

The hot spots connect to cell towers, and since some students live in dead zones, Brewer said they won't work in every home. But they should work at Celia Black's house, and she said her six grandkids can't wait to do their work at home.

"They're gonna work on it day and night, day and night, because they don't have nothing to do. They're just, like, ready to tackle it," she said.

In the meantime, Black said she's running low on gas money, so the girls will have to space out their trips to the high school.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

While learning online has become the norm for millions of kids across the country, it is a luxury unavailable to many students in a community being hit hard by the coronavirus - those on the Navajo Nation. Kate Groetzinger with member station KUER has more.

KATE GROETZINGER, BYLINE: Spencer Singer is the principal at Monument Valley High School in Utah, the desert backdrop for many famous old Western movies. Even today, he says, kids in the valley are doing their homework like they did back then.

SPENCER SINGER: Because there's a lot of kids who don't have even electricity at home, and they have other responsibilities as far as taking care of livestock. You know, for all intents and purposes, we operate in a third-world-type situation.

GROETZINGER: When his school first closed March 16, Singer says teachers tried giving assignments that didn't require the Internet or even a computer, instead sending packets of work home that kids could send back via school buses that bring meals each day. But at the end of March, the school stopped taking back completed packets in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.

SINGER: So what we're having the kids do is, if they have a smartphone, to take a picture and email it or text it in or just to save it and that we will get it from them at a future date.

GROETZINGER: Doing schoolwork without Internet access has been a struggle for families like Celia Black's. She's raising six grandchildren, including two girls who are juniors at Monument Valley High. Black says they had Internet at home but ended their service because it was too expensive.

CELIA BLACK: The oldest one is more into her grades, but she's having such a hard time because of the Wi-Fi not here.

GROETZINGER: The school's recently sent Chromebooks to all six grandchildren, so they've been driving about seven miles to the high school parking lot to get online each day. But Black says she worries about them getting kidnapped or injured.

BLACK: You keep calling them, and then they get agitated, too, and say, Grandma, I was right in the middle of this work and you just call me.

GROETZINGER: Around 40% of homes on the Navajo Nation are connected to the Internet. That's according to Walter Haase, general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. Haase says the utility's network covers two-thirds of the reservation, which is roughly the size of West Virginia. But less than half of the population is online because of the high poverty rate.

WALTER HAASE: The per capita income of our folks is about $10,700. So even though our Internet ranges from $30 a month to about $80 a month, it's still difficult for folks to afford.

GROETZINGER: To solve that issue, schools in Utah recently ordered wireless Internet hot spots for about 200 homes, enough for most high school students who live on the Navajo Nation in that state. Aaron Brewer, technical director for the San Juan School District, says they're being sent out on buses and the hardware and service are being provided for free. The hot spots connect to cell towers. And since some students live in dead zones, Brewer says they won't work in every home. But they should work at Celia Black's house. And she says her six grandkids can't wait to do their work at home.

BLACK: They're going to work on it day and night, day and night. Because they don't have nothing to do, they're just, like, ready to tackle it.

GROETZINGER: In the meantime, Black says she's running low on gas money, so the girls will have to space out their trips to the high school. For NPR News, I'm Kate Groetzinger in Bluff, Utah.

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