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

Schools in San Juan County, Utah, closed on March 16 and were originally scheduled to reopen on May 1 but will now remain closed through the end of the academic year.
Kate Groetzinger
Schools in San Juan County, Utah, closed on March 16 and were originally scheduled to reopen on May 1 but will now remain closed through the end of the academic year.

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.

"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.

Copyright 2020 KUER 90.1

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas, where she attended the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Journalism. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. Now, she is a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country. She’s excited to be living in and reporting on San Juan County, one of the most beautiful — and interesting — parts of the United States.