Keeping Our Native Students Safe, Healthy is Paramount During COVID-19 Pandemic

by Diana Cournoyer

By the end of March 2020, the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had closed classrooms in all schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). Approximately 48,000 students in K-12 schools either transitioned to a form of distance education or learned that they would not have access to education services for the remainder of the school year.

Now, over four months later, Tribal and school leaders must evaluate the most effective ways to resume education services for all students during the 2020-2021 school year. Though the specific method of education delivery in each school will vary based on school and community landscapes, continued delivery of high-quality culture-based education remains paramount to the growth and success of our Native students.

On August 6, 2020, the BIE released a four-page guidance document stating that Bureau-operated schools would operate via in-person academic instruction “to the maximum extent possible.” This comes at a time when numerous public-school systems nationwide – many located just down the street from Bureau-operated schools – are choosing to begin the new academic year through distance learning only. While we agree that students learn best when attending school in person, we are concerned that without robust testing and safety protocols, the spread of COVID-19 in Indian Country could be accelerated as a result of this in-person instruction. As we have seen in recent weeks, without rigorous adherence to proper risk-mitigation strategies, like wearing a face covering and physically distancing, reopening schools can lead to disastrous results and mass quarantines of potentially infected students. This is especially concerning in multi-generational households where our most vulnerable citizens, our elders, would be needlessly put at risk.

As the National Indian Education Association (NIEA), we stated in our comments on the draft BIE School Reopening Plan, Return to Learn!, that several Bureau-funded schools experienced a spread of COVID-19 among essential staff and then within the wider community when BIE Education Program Administrators (EPAs) failed to comply with Tribal and state orders to close schools in the spring. This is unacceptable. Our educators and staff must not be forced to choose between their lives and their livelihood. The wellbeing and safety of all, including those on the frontlines of learning in our communities, must be protected.

As COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact and spread in Native communities, Tribal nations face the possibility of future shutdowns to ensure the safety and wellbeing of students and community members. The Bureau must provide resources to support distance and hybrid learning models for schools that cannot reopen facilities due to continued community spread.

Equity in educational opportunity has become even more paramount during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Bureau-funded schools located in rural communities with limited virtual learning infrastructure face unique challenges providing equitable education services for students who are unable to attend physical classes due to concerns regarding their physical wellbeing and health. Many states and schools have addressed unique education gaps in their states with specific guidance to support continuing education services for all students. Like their state counterparts, BIE must also provide such guidance, aligned with that of the Department of Education, to support school and Tribal leaders as they develop and implement learning programs and services that address the unique needs of Native students.

Educational equity also means creating safe and healthy learning environments where Native students can thrive. Trauma related to the impact of COVID-19 in our families and in our communities follows Native students into the classroom. Educators and staff must have culturally responsive training to support trauma-informed education services. In the draft school reopening plan, BIE officials recognized the critical importance of mental health services as students return to the classroom. However, additional details regarding resources for school implementation is crucial to ensure effective and consistent implementation for our most vulnerable learners.

Diana Cournoyer

Diana Cournoyer is the Executive Director of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) where she carries out the organization’s strategic efforts around advocacy and Tribal education capacity building. 

While at NIEA, Ms. Cournoyer has helped shaped broader teacher hiring initiatives, created more opportunities for visits to tribal communities, acquired millions in grant funding for NIEA and testified before the U.S. Congress in support of Native education. Her work has ensured that Native students have the best possible outcomes and educators have the best possible resources to support their efforts. 

Prior to joining NIEA, Ms. Cournoyer worked with the Oglala Lakota College Graduate Studies Department. She has a master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Oklahoma and is currently a doctoral candidate with the University of South Dakota. Ms. Cournoyer is from the Oglala Sioux Tribe.