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Pandemic brings new challenges to education system on Native American reservations in South Dakota

First of two parts.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made providing a quality, culturally relevant education to the children on South Dakota’s nine Native American reservations more difficult than ever.

Even as schools have provided students with new learning tools and better internet access, the widespread move to remote teaching and learning has educators worried that the longer the pandemic continues, the further their Native students will fall behind.

As the deadly COVID-19 pandemic continues unabated in South Dakota, Native leaders have taken strong steps to prevent the spread of the disease and protect vulnerable populations on reservations.

Closing schools and moving to online education has been part of that prevention effort, and there is little indication that students, teachers and staff can safely host in-person classes anytime soon. To adjust to the new reality, reservation schools and teachers have been forced to quickly create and adopt new online, distance-learning programs, many of which have never been tried before.

“It is a huge change,” said James Curran, executive director of Teach For America’s South Dakota branch. “The schools that we work with, some of them are still trying to figure out tech stuff and laptops and internet-access questions, so there’s still a lot that isn’t fully solved.”

Teach For America has helped reservation schools in South Dakota find, train and retain new teachers for more than a decade. The organization had to scramble to adjust its training format in order to help prepare the 17 new teachers it brought into South Dakota this year for an entirely new way of teaching.

“The format is completely new and no one really knows how to do it that well yet,” Curran said.

Education experts have said that distance learning, even under ideal conditions, cannot match the quality of in-person education delivered in a classroom, a fact that may be exacerbated on reservations where students often benefit from the cultural, spiritual and emotional connections formed with teachers when learning in person. Distance learning has also led to lower attendance and engagement by students at some schools.

Reservations in South Dakota are mostly remote, isolated places and are home to some of the poorest communities in the United States. Many people who live on reservations face challenges in getting healthy food, basic healthcare and quality housing, all of which contribute to the challenges schools face in educating children. Reliable access to the internet, an essential tool for modern life, also can be expensive and difficult to find on reservations.

During the 2018-19 school year, fewer than one in four Native American students in grades three through eight and grade 11 scored as proficient in reading and writing on state standardized tests. Roughly one in seven Native American students scored as proficient in math, and just one in eight was proficient in science.

A separate test, the 2019 National Assessment of Educational progress, found that Native American fourth and eighth grade students in South Dakota were between 25 and 30 points behind their white peers in math and reading.

Native American students in South Dakota are served by several distinctly different educational systems. Most of the state’s Native American students attend traditional public schools that are funded by local property taxes as well as state sales taxes and are governed by locally elected school boards. The federal Bureau of Indian Education, meanwhile, operates three schools in the state and helps fund dozens of tribal grant schools, which are governed by tribal leaders. Several privately funded and governed schools also serve Native American students in the state.

Some tribes and school districts were able to use their portion of the $8 billion set aside for tribal governments in the federal CARES Act to buy computers, iPads and cellular hotspots for connecting to the internet that students can use at home. Providing students with high-speed internet access was a major accomplishment and teachers say will be invaluable for their students now and in the future.

Students who rarely had the opportunity to use computers now use them everyday. Learning to use technology will be invaluable later in their lives, said Grace Delaney, a first- and second-grade teacher at He Dog Elementary School on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota.

“Being able to navigate a computer and type is a skill and is a part of learning and they finally have that tool,” Delaney said.

At He Dog elementary, the summer of 2020 was spent planning and revising methods to teach at least the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year online. The school is part of the Todd County School District, one of several South Dakota public school districts that almost exclusively serve Native American students.

Unlike most of the state’s other districts, Todd County students largely did not have access to high-speed internet connections or computers. As a result, much of the 2019-20 final quarter was spent reviewing what students had learned earlier in the year through the use of worksheets delivered to student homes.

“It was, honestly, nothing short of devastating to lose the rest of the school year last year,” said Lela Biggus, an English teacher for fourth and fifth grade students. “We established a really awesome classroom culture, and to kind of have that cut short didn’t feel good.”

Teachers were forced to use phone calls to try to help students when needed and maintain the relationships they’d built with students and parents, Biggus said. Teaching with packets also prevented teachers from introducing students to new material, meaning students likely would start their next school year behind where they should have been.

“You need the internet to do distance learning,” Biggus said. “We can’t afford to not deliver new content to our students. Many, if not all, of our students are behind grade-level. And I think that the achievement gap, right now, you can really feel the potential for that widening if we don’t step up 110% as educators.”

Over the summer, federal coronavirus relief funds, provided through the CARES Act, helped the district pay for Chromebooks and to secure internet access for each student. The district also invested in an online teaching platforms and Zoom for remote interaction.

The 2020-12 school year started for Todd County on Sept. 14 and the switch to online learning hasn’t been easy.

Using Zoom makes it more difficult to develop relationships and trust between teachers and students, Delaney said. Students need to be able to trust their teachers in order to feel comfortable in their learning environment and to accept what they’re being taught, so without trust, students don’t perform as well.

Delaney’s current crop of first-graders is still trying to figure her out. Trust takes time to develop in any new class but the process is eased if interactions are occurring naturally throughout each day.

The Pine Ridge Girls School is a privately funded, all-girls middle and high school located near Porcupine. The school was founded in 2016 to prove Native American girls an academically rigorous, deeply personal education, said Head of School April Johnston.

Class sizes in each grade level at the school are intentionally kept small, with about 10 students each. The idea is to provide another support system both in and out of the classroom to Native students, many of whom are struggling against the effects of generational poverty in addition to the historical traumas inflicted upon Native populations.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the school to shut its building down, and teachers had to switch to a remote teaching model to finish out the 2019-20 school year. The critical hands-on aspect of the Pine Ridge Girls School mission was almost impossible to maintain.

Maintaining the relationships between teachers, students and families while at the same time taking measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, was a big challenge, Johnston said.

The school gathers students from a 100-mile radius and most of the students come from poor families, many of which didn’t have ready access to the internet.

Pine Ridge Girls School donors helped fix the internet problem, Johnston said. A series of donations helped pay for hotspots and data plans from AT&T as well as computers that each student could take home.

Through the first month of online-only instruction, daily attendance had averaged about 80%, which was considered pretty good for virtual classrooms, Johnston said.

But the challenge of maintaining the school’s focus on the personal wellbeing and emotional growth of each student remains. Relationships are less personal in online settings and phone conversations do not provide the same level of interaction that teachers had with students and their parents.

“The question that we’re kind of facing is, ‘How do we support (our students) emotionally? How are we making sure that we’re still engaging our parents?’ It’s definitely not without a lot of challenges,” Johnston said.

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