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Hard Decisions for Native American Educators on Reopening Schools

While most public schools in South Dakota will provide in-person learning this fall, many schools on Native American reservations have opted for distance learning. (Adobe Stock)
While most public schools in South Dakota will provide in-person learning this fall, many schools on Native American reservations have opted for distance learning. (Adobe Stock)
August 12, 2020

LOWER BRULE, S.D. -- Native American educators say they're in a tough bind in preparing for classes this fall. Their communities are more vulnerable to COVID-19, and one South Dakota tribal school says it isn't taking any chances.

Schools on the Lower Brule Reservation serve about 300 K-through-12 students. Lower Brule Schools superintendent Lance Witte said distance learning has its own problems because of internet access woes and many families with crowded living arrangements. Although COVID-19 isn't widespread in his area, he said local educators know the risk they face in fully reopening.

"We're facing some health concerns here that are probably not as prevalent off the reservation," he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans infected with COVID-19 have consistently higher hospitalization rates. Witte said that's why his school is starting the year with mostly distance learning, but students will be able to come in for evaluations with their teachers. He said that lack of connection had a negative effect when schools had to shut down back in the spring.

Not all tribal schools have the authority to make these decisions on their own. More than 50 Native American schools are controlled by the Bureau of Indian Education, including three in South Dakota. The agency has announced guidelines that place an emphasis on in-person learning this fall. Although there is some flexibility, Sue Parton, who heads the Federation of Indian Service Employees, said there's also concern about the health impact on students and staff.

"I'm really concerned about the Bureau of Indian Education providing as many safety precautions as possible, minimally following the CDC guidelines," she said.

The bureau did not respond to a request for comment before deadline, but in past statements it has said it can better serve these students when they are in school. Its plan does allow for schools to shift to distance learning if there's an outbreak of coronavirus on a campus.

The schools on the Lower Brule Reservation aren't operated by the BIE but fall under the agency's umbrella. Witte said they'll keep monitoring data from all levels of government to help make decisions about how to operate classes. In the meantime, he said, they're focused on making sure students are ready for a very new approach of mostly distance learning.

"This will be the first time our students have had devices at their homes," he said.

Mike Moen, Public News Service - SD