The Navajo Nation has protested the U.S. government’s edict to reopen federally-funded reservation schools for in-person classes before Sept. 16.

Navajo Reservation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer urged the Department of the Interior to reverse an order to require all Bureau of Indian Affairs schools to resume in-person classes and to instead give the tribes the same authority over school openings granted to local, off-reservation school districts.

The Navajo Nation wants to offer only online classes and distance learning on the reservation through the Fall 2020 semester, similar to the policies that have been embraced by most of the state’s off-reservation districts.

“The Office of the President and Vice President, the Navajo Nation Board of Education, and the Department of Diné Education, support out Navajo parents and their concern for keeping their children, families and communities safe. Furthermore, we have heard from teachers who have expressed concern for their safety and health should in-person, face-to-face and in-classroom learning remain unilaterally mandated by the United States, the BIE, and the U.S. Department of the Interior leadership.” Wrote Nez in a letter to the Department of the Interior.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, urged the department to respect tribal sovereignty when it comes to when schools should offer in-person classes.

“For too long this spring and summer, the Navajo Nation was the COVID-19 capital of America. Forced to wait months for CARES Act funding to arrive, the tribe was left to struggle without the federal dollars they were promised,” said O’Halleran. “The Navajo Nation is now finally beginning to lift stay-at-home and curfew orders as this viral spread slows. However, we are not out of the woods yet. I am joining my friends Jonathan and Myron in urging Interior and BIE to honor tribal sovereignty and the concerns of Navajo Nation parents in implementing distance learning over in-person instruction this fall. The health and safety of children across my district is, and will always be, my first priority.”

Nez and Lizer said the community overwhelmingly supports online learning and fervently oppose in-person, face-to-face, and in-classroom learning.

“We are ready and prepared to ensure that all school entities within the Navajo Nation honor and recognize the Navajo Nation’s inherent sovereign authority to protect the health and well-being of our most precious tribal resource, our children, their families, and our communities. Throughout our experience combating this deadly virus, we have found that when we all work together in partnership, we are able to effectively overcome challenges and save precious lives.”

Then issue prompted a rare note of bipartisan agreement in the sprawling congressional district that includes the reservation. Pinal County rancher Tiffany Shedd, the Republican challenging O’Halleran for the seat, said “We need to get children back in schools as soon as is safely possible, while following the science and the data. I trust the people of the Navajo Nation to make the best decisions for their children and their education more than bureaucrats in Washington D.C. We must have more local control in education and allow school leaders to do what is in the best interest of their community during this pandemic.”

Tribal communities have struggled to access the CARES Act money earmarked for reservations throughout the pandemic.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey left it up to local school districts to decide when to offer in-person classes and the Arizona Department of Health Services established three benchmarks to help school boards make that decision.

Navajo County at this point meets two of the three benchmarks and Apache County meets all three. However, the state doesn’t break out the statistics by smaller areas, like the Navajo or Apache reservations. The reservations have suffered some of the highest infection and death rates in the country, although numbers have finally been declining in recent weeks.

In July, O’Halleran introduced a law that would extend tribal eligibility for $8 billion earmarked for tribes in the CARES Act. The CARES Act was signed into law on March 27, but tribes did not begin receiving money for nearly three months — after the deadline included in the original bill. During this time, the Navajo Nation in Arizona’s First Congressional District became the most concentrated COVID-19 hotspot in the nation.

The Administration memo requiring reservation schools to reopen by Sept. 16 allows families to keep students home and rely on distance learning, but teachers would have to report for in-person classes unless they were in a COVID-19 risk group.

The bureau operates 53 schools on tribal lands. The bureau’s schools are among the few under direct federal control, rather than state or local control. The teachers are federal employees and so have few options in the face of the proposed federal directive.

Studies show that children under 10 often do not show symptoms and rarely suffer serious side effects when infected, but can apparently pass the virus along readily to one another and adults. Older students are more likely to get seriously ill, but still have a dramatically lower death rate than older adults. However, teachers would likely face a significant risk of infection, even if their infected students displayed few symptoms.

Other countries have safely reopened schools, but usually only with infection rates much lower than the rates that still exist in Arizona generally and on the Navajo and Apache reservations specifically.

Schools that have already reopened in other states have been plagued by new clusters of cases that in some cases have forced them to shut down again or quarantine dozens — or hundreds — of students and faculty in close contact with a confirmed case.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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