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Fifty-three Native American schools are ordered to reopen in September, as COVID-19 is still prevalent in Native communities. Photo: Politico.com
Fifty-three Native American schools are ordered to reopen in September, as COVID-19 is still prevalent in Native communities. Photo: Politico.com

Forcing Native American schools to reopen amid COVID-19 is a health disaster

After being one of the first to suffer incredible odds against COVID-19, Indigenous tribes are now forced to risk the lives of their students and teachers.

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COVID-19 is far from over, but that fact isn’t stopping the U.S. Department of the Interior from putting children and teachers in harm's way. The department is forcing 53 Native American schools to reopen “to the maximum effect possible” as similar “recommendations” are spreading in hard-hit regions of the United States.

For instance, just three months ago, the Navajo Nation was the epicenter for COVID-19. The Nation has recently reached a milestone, as the daily case count continues to decline.

The Navajo Nation has since voiced they want to leave the decision on whether to bring students back to school up to parents and staff.

“Overwhelmingly, the parents of these students wanted to move towards online education,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told KOAT News. 

But the U.S. The Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Education, recently announced it will push for reopening schools on Sept. 16. 

It is important to note the Department of the Interior is controlled by proud President Donald Trump supporter, David Bernhardt, who’s orders no doubt stem from the presidents’ unyielding push to reopen schools nationwide. 

Just as the Navajo Nation is on a fast-track to recovery — doing better than states like Florida and Texas —all while dealing with fewer resources, the Trump administration’s constant advocacy for reopening schools and in-person learning is now throwing a potential aggravator to Indigenous communities’ virus counts.

Whatever is decided has a direct effect on the lives of students, teachers, and families.

There are dozens of bureau-operated schools within the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Reservation, Hopi Reservation, Jicarilla Apache Nation Reservation, and Zuni Reservations alone. 

This is not to mention the dozens more tribally-controlled schools which must navigate this mandate themselves.

Because Native tribes like the Navajo nation are sovereign, they don’t have to follow guidelines from state governors. But most of their schools are controlled by the Bureau of Indian Education, which in turn, is controlled by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Just like Native Tribes experienced greater difficulty in their COVID-19 response and recovery, many Bureau of Indian Education schools face numerous challenges.

Schools are commonly miles from students who have to travel great distances from desolate regions of their reservations, reported NBC. Boarding schools are also common throughout reservations, and some students must live in close proximity to one another. This creates an uncommon risk to students going back to school.

Uncommon, because these students are forced to attend these boarding schools because of the structure of their society, not because of affluence or because they are prestigious schools. The situation is similar to food deserts, where the structure of their society increases health risk.

The Bureau released a plan for reopening schools weeks ago, which contains alarming rates of teachers and staff who are considered vulnerable to the virus, or have underlying health conditions. 

But it appears the Department of the Interior does not consider these compounded risks to be a problem.

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