ST. MICHAELS, Ariz. – Students on the country’s largest Native American reservation spoke to first lady Jill Biden on Friday about challenges they've faced during the coronavirus pandemic, including poor internet service and feelings of isolation.
The hourlong discussion took place at Hunters Point Boarding School, a small, aging grade school in St. Michaels, on the outskirts of the Navajo Nation capital.
The visit came as the first lady wrapped up a three-day tour of the U.S. Southwest, where she stopped at coronavirus vaccination clinics in New Mexico and Arizona and met with female tribal leaders who shared their concerns about the needs of the Navajo people.
The handful of students who spoke to the first lady were from schools in the area surrounding Window Rock.
Each explained there were times when they couldn’t get online for classes on the vast and remote reservation, which encompasses parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, said Lesley Tohtsoni, who moderated the talk.
Biden told them help was on the way for broadband through her husband's administration.
“We so often focus on the negatives of the pandemic and — she brought this up — one of the positives is we have looked closely at education and the role teachers play and what they do for students, and the lack of equity across the board, from one end of our country to another,” said Tohtsoni, who teaches U.S. history at the Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico.
Across the Navajo Nation, students have been learning remotely, some given flash drives with schoolwork or paper packets if they have no access to computers. The tribe has maintained strict COVID-19 restrictions after having one of the country’s highest per-capita infection rates early on in the pandemic.
School buses have become Wi-Fi hotspots and delivered food to students’ homes, or a central location when they couldn’t navigate dirt roads that turn into a muddy mess when it rains or snows.
The students told Biden about their communities and what they’ve learned about their strengths and weaknesses in the past year, Tohtsoni said. They also talked about ways to maintain their mental health and stay connected with teachers and friends.
Navajo Prep senior Cade Allison wore his biggest bolo tie, a popular Southwestern necktie, for the meeting with Biden.
He told her Navajos are social people, and it was hard to not meet with classmates in the summer and to skip an annual family reunion. But, he said, they're also resilient and understood the need to stay home to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Allison, who lives in Fruitland, New Mexico, said he found Biden genuine and caring.
“I'm glad the first lady was interested in learning more about Native American students and how the pandemic impacted us and what she can influence on a federal level, talking to the president and helping further our Navajo infrastructure,” he told The Associated Press.
Biden said she feels for students who have struggled during the pandemic with losing loved ones and attending classes via Zoom. She encouraged them to keep journals.
“If you could write a journal and just look at this time," Biden said. "Don’t forget it and think about what did you learn about yourselves. Were you stronger than you thought? ... Did you find that you were kinder, or did you find that maybe you felt sad so many days?”
Biden met with the students in the common room of the school’s dormitory, which has a mural of crops planted in rows and the geographic feature Hunters Point.
Navajo Nation first lady Phefelia Nez told the students dressed in traditional moccasins, crushed velvet shirts and dresses with Navajo designs: “This is going to be one of those days you remember for the rest of your lives.”
Earlier, as the motorcade traveled through the Navajo Nation, residents waved from their front porches and roadside hay stands.
At the entrance to the Hunters Point school, signs expressed gratitude for federal virus relief funding that the tribe has received and money yet to be distributed.
Few people have been on the campus amid the pandemic.
In a normal year, students stay in Hunters Point's dorms during the week and are bussed home on weekends. Many come from single-parent families who struggle financially, said school board member Genevieve Jackson.
The school that serves kindergarten to fifth grade has used funds from a federal virus relief package to provide laptops for students, and equipment and training for teachers to instruct remotely.
Yet Jackson said on windy days, the internet is “questionable” and has caused delays for standardized testing. Some of the school’s equipment dates back more than a half-century, she said.
“We are a very poor nation, and (Joe Biden) recognizes that we’re an impoverished nation,” she said. “We’re rich in culture and our teachings, but we need to catch up to the modern day of 2021.”
Hunters Point falls under the U.S. Bureau of Education, which oversees more than 180 schools in nearly two dozen states but directly operates less than one-third of them. Hunters Point is among those run by tribes or tribal organizations under contract with the federal government.
The schools have a tainted 19th century legacy from when Native American children were taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools. They are among the nation’s lowest performing, and have struggled with issues such as shoddy facilities.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Education has begun disbursing the $850 million it received from the American Rescue Plan. More than $535 million will go to the agency’s schools that serve 46,000 students in grade school. The agency’s director, Tony Dearman, said the funds will help students, teachers and schools recover from the pandemic's impacts on education.
Biden also visited a COVID-19 vaccination site on the reservation before returning to Albuquerque for her flight back to Washington.
She spent the first day of her trip to the Navajo Nation on Thursday listening to female tribal leaders whom she referred to as her “sister warriors” about the broader needs on the reservation.
The trip was Biden’s third to the vast reservation and her first as first lady. She vowed to work with all tribal nations, in a recognition of their inherent sovereignty and political relationship with the United States.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority estimates that expanding broadband across the 27,000-square mile (70,000 square-kilometer) reservation would cost more than $220 million. Tribal lawmakers like Daniel Tso said they realize they need to be more systematic in allocating the next round of relief funding.
Jackson said she's hopeful Hunters Point students can return in the fall with the same opportunities as children in bigger cities.
“We are producing tomorrow's leaders, so we all share that dream and hope,” she said.
Fonseca is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP