MONUMENT VALLEY — Empty playgrounds. Empty classrooms. Schools across Utah look pretty much the same right now. Teachers and staff have spent weeks adjusting their entire way of educating due to the statewide public-school shutdown because of COVID-19.
For many students, their classwork has gone mostly, if not entirely, online. But for hundreds of students in remote southeastern Utah, going online isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“A big majority of them, probably 50% of our students, they don’t have running water or electricity at their house, let alone having Wi-Fi,” Mike Tuckfield explained in a virtual interview.
Tuckfield is the principal at Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary in Utah’s Monument Valley, where a majority of the students live on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Their homes are remote, basic services are limited, and even cell service is spotty.
The San Juan County School District has helped by providing hotspots and erecting two new Wi-Fi towers to help provide internet to more homes, but they can’t reach everyone.
“Some of our families in those areas have tried to get closer to where the towers are to be able to do their homework and be able to view the videos that are being sent by the teachers,” said Tuckfield.
But that presents another challenge.
The Navajo Nation recently imposed a strict COVID-19 curfew. Anyone out after 8 p.m. on weeknights could face a $1,000 fine or even jail time. The curfew is even stricter on the weekends when they’re under a 57-hour lockdown from Friday night until Monday morning.
“They’ve had to drive to where those towers are and then the police have come by and said, ‘You’ve got to go home otherwise we’re going to ticket you because you can’t be out here,’ even though they’re isolated in their own cars sitting there,” Tuckfield said.
The teachers at Tse’bii’nidzisgai are seeing about 50% participation from students, which they consider a success.
Tuckfield says this shutdown comes at an especially bad time for his school which was already in “turnaround status.”
Some of our families in those areas have tried to get closer to where the (Wi-Fi) towers are to be able to do their homework and be able to view the videos that are being sent by the teachers.
–Mike Tuckfield, Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary principal
“Our hope is to be able to maintain at least where they were at so when we do get them back in the classrooms, that we can continue with where we were at and continue to grow because we started with great momentum. Our test scores were going up. Kids were happy at school. We were having great success, and we want to continue doing that as soon as they come back.”
The need to feed
Beyond their students’ academic needs, the staff at Tse’bii’nidzisgai are also assisting with physical needs.
“Almost 100% of our student population is on free and reduced lunch,” said Tuckfield.
Unlike more urban schools in northern Utah, it isn’t feasible to have students come to the school to pick up free breakfast and lunch every day so Tuckfield and his team spend two days each week preparing multiple days of meals to be delivered to students.
On Mondays, half of the staff spends the morning putting together some 1,800 meals.
“We’re starting to get it down to a science,” Tuckfield said.
They assemble sandwiches, fruit, vegetables, cereal and milk and then load everything up onto seven school buses. It takes the rest of the afternoon to deliver then they repeat the same process on Thursdays.
“Our staff has been amazing,” Tuckfield said, “The teachers are great. They care about the kids, They care about the families and they’re willing to come in and do whatever they need to, to do that.”
The shutdown has provided unique challenges for the staff, but also learning opportunities.
“We’re learning some things from this that we may continue even as school gets back in session,” Tuckfield explained.
He’s gotten positive feedback from parents about instructional videos created by teachers to teach new concepts. Having those videos at home has helped make things easier for family members to jump in when a child needs help with homework.
But that’s not the only positive that’s come from the pandemic.
“One thing that’s come from this, since the kids are home with the parents — they’re going back to learning more of their culture and their traditions and learning how to do some of their rug weaving and the basket weaving and the traditional dances and taking care of the animals,” he said. “I’ve heard comments from parents that, ‘We’re out learning some hoop dancing today,’ which I think is awesome because there is learning out of the books, and then there is real-life learning.”