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The Predictable, Preventable Mess of Reopening Schools in Indian Country

There is no way to separate the emergencies of the pandemic from the preexisting structural conditions forged by America’s legacy of broken trust responsibilities.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In August, as families across the country prepared for the new school year, Smithsonian magazine spoke to more than a dozen anonymous tribal citizens about remote learning, public health protocols, and the rest of the fraught exercise of learning in a pandemic. A grandma from Oregon, who was also a former Bureau of Indian Affairs I.T. specialist, said that she had to step in to teach her grandchildren for two months because their parents still had to work full-time. A parent from the Kewa Pueblo in New Mexico felt uncomfortable with the online curriculum her kids were learning at home: “I want my children to get a proper Indigenous-focused education, versus the colonial cookie-cutter online learning that’s being shoved down children’s throats.” An educator on the Muckleshoot Reservation in Washington State said they worried about the accessibility of their district’s online learning plan: “My concerns are for our families too far out to access the internet. I will make sure they get paper packets, but it’s still not the same as getting instruction.”

Little has changed in the months since. In April, speaking with the Daily Yonder, Hopi citizen Loris Taylor shared that her grandchildren relied on a single hotspot with connectivity issues to do their school work. “They only had one mobile handheld, so he did his homework and then his sister followed,” she said. “That’s four hours right there for the parent to be in some parking lot with their kids. Not very ideal.” Seven months later, in late November, the Associated Press opened a lede on a story about school uncertainty across the Navajo Nation with the line, “One student runs 85 feet up a hill every morning, just to get a cellphone signal so he can call in his attendance.”

Schools serving tribal populations, especially those funded by the federal government, have long been underfunded, and Native households, especially those in rural reservation communities, are still working to gain steady access to broadband. There is no single story of the education crisis in Indian Country because of how varied Indian Country is, but there was never a scenario in which Native students weathered the pandemic as well as their white counterparts. Like recent crises concerning testing availability, the census, voting access, housing, and pandemic relief distribution, there is no way to separate the emergencies of the pandemic from the preexisting structural conditions forged by America’s legacy of land theft and anti-sovereignty. So while it is worthwhile to examine why it is that Native students are being left behind in a global health crisis, and how the United States is failing in its trust responsibilities, it’s hard to say that anything here aside from the coronavirus feels new.


The Bureau of Indian Education serves only a sliver of Native students across the country—roughly 8 percentwith most of the rest attending locally operated public schools or tribe-run systems. Of the 187 BIE schools, 132 are operated by individual tribal nations, with the other 55 controlled by the BIE itself. Despite its smaller size, BIE’s response to the pandemic is a crucial part of the larger story, as it stands alongside health care and housing as one of the services guaranteed to federally recognized tribes as part of America’s many trust and treaty responsibilities. And as with its companions, this guarantee is rarely fulfilled.

In mid-March, the Hechinger Report and HuffPost found that the BIE offered “limited guidance” to its school administrators while other public school systems moved ahead with more developed contingency plans for remote learning. And as with the funds provided to tribal governments and communities through the Cares Act, the distribution of the $200 million set aside by Congress for the BIE and tribal schools was slowed to a trickle. Almost every student in America was dealing with the ramifications of a slow-moving Congress, but BIE was in particularly bad shape before the crisis hit: A 2017 report on the status of BIE operations by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s office found that “34 percent (63 schools) are in poor condition.” (Comparatively, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported in 2017 that 24 percent of American public schools were in “fair or poor condition.”) “These substandard conditions are not conducive to educational achievement, and they unfairly restrict learning opportunities for students,” the Interior report found.

Similarly, a survey conducted in late April by the National Indian Education Association found that just 45 percent of BIE schools offered some form of digital learning, compared to 85 percent of public schools with Native students. The same survey found that 40 percent of BIE students lack internet access, with another 34 percent relying on a cell phone. In public schools, 58 percent of Native students have regular access to broadband.

Even outside of the BIE, the pandemic strained the ability of both private and tribe-run school systems to provide their usual services for students. Lemual Adson, the superintendent of the Kayenta Unified School District in Navajo Nation, told the Arizona Education News Service in June that at the height of the spring surge, his district had to go as far as halting the “delivery of meals to students and to cease sending instructional packets to our students due to concerns of the virus spreading.” (The NIEA survey found that 34 percent of BIE students rely on food delivery services from their schools during the pandemic, and that, in a typical school year, “nearly 4 in 5 American Indian and Alaska Native students rely on school meal programs to provide affordable and healthy meals.”)

In August, BIE schools in Navajo Nation were publicly advised by Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs for the Interior Department, to move ahead with plans to reopen schools for the fall, prompting a backlash by tribal officials who felt such directives undermined their nation’s sovereignty. But on September 15—just a day before schools were set to open—the agency reversed course, with the BIE-run schools opting for a remote start to the year. This left schools unprepared, as they had been allocating their limited Cares Act funds to providing hazard pay for teachers and school staff rather than bulking up their supply of school laptops.

And as both Adson and the Muckleshoot Reservation educator noted, making a sudden switch to remote learning in rural rez communities brings a unique set of challenges, most of them concerning how students will be able to access their school materials without stable internet access.

The Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development deemed broadband infrastructure to be “as essential as water and electricity network” in a 2018 report. Having gained prevalence as an issue as rural American communities similarly struggle with the digital divide, the problem of broadband access should be one with straightforward solutions both there and in Indian Country—fund the construction of broadband infrastructure in rural and reservation communities and subsidize payment plans for the people in these underserved areas.

Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration has not proven to be a great help on this front for tribal communities over the past four years. Most notably, in November 2017, the Federal Communications Commission, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, voted to cut the Lifeline subsidy program, which provided federal assistance for rural Native households that purchase internet services from resellers. (Thankfully, a federal court overruled the FCC’s action a year later, keeping the program in place.) There has been more movement on this front lately, with the FCC issuing broadband licenses to 154 tribal nations in late October. The move came too late to have any meaningful effect on the ongoing school closures but signaled a step toward a long-term solution—though tribal leaders like Zia Pueblo tribal administrator Ken Lucero have pointed out, “It would be great if the FCC or Congress could now follow up with funding for projects.”

Uncertainty has been a popular buzzword in the broader debate over in-person versus remote learning. And it’s apt enough: Millions of working parents are struggling to figure out childcare as they juggle work and home life, just as teachers are trying to gauge how much public officials care about their safety. As Rachel Cohen wrote recently for The Prospect, there’s a lot we still don’t know about reopening.

And yet, when viewing the ongoing education crisis through a wider lens—one that considers the full context of Congress’s repeated underfunding of Indian Country services—this overwhelming sense of uncertainty slowly shifts to one of disturbing normalcy. The federal government, through its actions both in the spring and over the past half-century, ensured that BIE schools and the Native students they serve would never have a chance to do anything more than display resiliency while falling behind. It’s not dissimilar to how this entire pandemic has played out, with tribal nations doing everything in their power to fend off the spread of the coronavirus while the states around them have poured a steady stream of gasoline on the fire. In that way, the “uncertainty” that has failed so many Native families was always certain.