Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Community School has continued remote learning even as most New Mexico schools have reopened to students and to staff.
The tribal school is located 26 miles south of Bloomfield, New Mexico, near Huerfano Mountain, one of the sacred mountains on the Navajo Reservation. Each year, between 150 and 180 students — by far a Navajo majority — enroll at Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle, according to the school’s website.
School principal Chrystal Martinez-Tom told Carlsbad Current-Argus that she only expected to conduct remote learning for a short time, but the virus continued to rage in their community as that students and their families have contracted COVID-19.
“We don’t know when things will return to normal, or what the new normal will look like,” Martinez-Tom said.
Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Community School has been offering distance education since March 2020, when the Navajo Nation School Board passed a resolution requiring all of its schools to provide distance education.
Most schools in the state returned to face-to-face learning in August 2021, only switching to online classes when cases began to rise.
Continued:NM health officials fight misinformation about masks and vaccines as COVID-19 resurfaces
Carlsbad Municipal Schools in Carlsbad, New Mexico, resumed remote learning just a week after the first day of school. And as the virus continues to impact the state, school districts continue to respond, including Santa Fe public schools which closed in January because the Omicron variant led to an increase in cases.
The difficulties of distance learning
Students and staff who test positive for the virus must quarantine for at least five days in accordance with guidelines from the New Mexico Department of Public Education. These students are usually able to continue taking online courses.
Administrators say it has put additional strain on teachers, forcing some to juggle in-person classes and remote learning for their quarantined students.
In southeastern New Mexico, Carlsbad Municipal Schools and Loving Municipal Schools lobbied to avoid school closures even as COVID-19 cases began to rise.
In late January, Hillcrest Nursery School in Carlsbad and Loving Elementary School were forced to switch to remote learning after large numbers of staff tested positive for the virus.
Continued:New Mexico schools prepare to implement new social studies curriculum
At the start of the pandemic, families across the state struggled to adjust to remote learning. Internet connectivity has become a concern for students living in rural areas.
New Mexico ranked 49th for households with internet access – just behind Mississippi – according to the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) report released in 2021. The survey was originally conducted in 2018.
According to the report, 23.1% of New Mexico households do not have a high-speed Internet subscription. This number rises to 30.9% in rural areas.
“At the start of the pandemic, many of our students and staff didn’t have internet connections or laptops,” Martinez-Tom said.
She said the school has tried different internet providers and as of August 2020 most students have an internet connection or a mobile hotspot.
“However, reliability depends on the weather and remote areas of each student,” Martinez-Tom said.
Data shows that the shift to remote learning and internet connection issues may have led to an increase in chronic absenteeism in New Mexico schools.
Continued:Carlsbad Municipal Schools students protest statewide mask requirements during class
Truancy increased from 9% in the 2019-2020 school year to 27% in the 2020-2021 school year, according to New Mexico’s KIDS COUNT 2021 data book.
Martinez-Tom said school is a place where students can have social interactions and build relationships.
“The structure that was once created and maintained by school administration in campus buildings had been turned over to students and their families when the pandemic began,” Martinez-Tom said. “Students have faced a host of challenges, not only because of concerns over COVID-19, but it has affected their physical and mental well-being, the impact of economic stress due to job loss from parents, the loss of loved ones and the daily uncertainty of attending virtual school.”
Martinez-Tom said the school was unable to provide adequate guidance to address those concerns.
Efforts have been made across the state to address some of the challenges schools have faced throughout the pandemic.
In early February, PED launched a hotline to provide New Mexico students with technical support and homework help for students who miss school due to the pandemic.
A PED spokesperson said the hotline will not turn away any students in need of help, even those attending Bureau of Indian Affairs schools like Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle.
Most schools have taken full advantage of federal relief funds provided through the U.S. Rescue Plan and the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER). Schools typically used the funds to provide students and staff with electronic devices, internet access and personal protective equipment.
Martinez-Tom said the Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle used relief funds to establish a bus line to deliver daily supplies and meals to students.
“Our school is very grateful to the federal government for providing additional funding to ensure schools continue to provide educational services to students,” Martinez-Tom said.
CMS used relief funds to open a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site for students and staff and is conducting an assessment to find out how the district can improve mental health services.
Martinez-Tom said Dzilth-Na-O-Dith-Hle Community School has set up a tutoring program for parents and guardians. The program allows parents to help the school maintain daily attendance, submit schoolwork, keep electronic devices charged, and participate in class.
She said the school is also hosting online activities for parents and students, such as a Navajo cultural night and movie nights; offered tutoring, a STEAM (Science Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) program, a summer program, and reading and math training for parents.
“We are extremely proud of all of our staff and school board members for the dedication and continued support for the benefit of our children,” Martinez-Tom said.
Claudia Silva is a reporter for UNM’s Local Reporting Fellowship. She can be reached at [email protected], by phone at 575-628-5506 or on Twitter @thewatchpup.