Alde Woods, Arizona Republic - BIE schools and the pandemic

Alde Woods, Arizona Republic
BIE schools and the pandemic


By any number of recognized academic standards, the 180 or so schools for Native American children operated by the Bureau of Indian Education are among the worst in America.

The terrible Coronavirus pandemic has brought out the worst in the worst, from the beginning of the outbreak, when schools had to close, to where we are today, BIE schools reopening, mostly for online long-distance learning, with hundreds of students left out of the digital loop. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been particularly devastating to many Native American communities – at the beginning of October, for example, the COVID-19 death toll in the Navajo Nation had reached 558, with cases getting close to 10,500. One of the vectors of Coronavirus contagion among the Navajos were those BIE schools, and the BIE response to the outbreak made everything worse.

Let’s be honest: it’s hardly surprising some staff at some BIE schools, and some students should have been caught up in the early wave of infections that hit tribal areas in March. And it certainly didn’t surprise people familiar with BIE that when it ordered its day and boarding schools to close to contain the spread of the pandemic, execution of the order was less than uniform.  

It might even be considered inevitable that at least one school that delayed sending its students home did so, even though at least one staff member was showing signs of illness.

But it was not inevitable that the BIE chose to close its schools, send its students home, and not warn either the students or their families that the pandemic had penetrated their school. The BIE policy of coverup undoubtedly helped the disease get a toehold in any number of vulnerable families, often including elderly people in proximity to kids returning from infected schools, with no proximity to medical care.

Even as schools were closing in March, Congress was thinking about reopening them. It appropriated $150 million under the CARES Act to help BIE prepare for, and equip their students for, online education.

What happened then seems to have been – nothing. Well, there was some planning, but when BIE schools were supposed to open in mid-August little of the federal money had been spent, which meant there were nowhere near enough computers to fulfill BIE’s promise of one for every kid.

Now, BIE says, some students won’t see their laptops ‘til December … and in the meanwhile … well, it’s time again to put the words “BIE”, “schools” and “worst” in the same sentence.



Alden Woods is a reporter on the Storytelling team at the Arizona Republic, writing enterprise and feature stories from across the state.



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