Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Feds to reopen 53 Native American schools despite coronavirus risk

coronavirus COVID-19 community spread native americans bureau of indian affairs dearson sweeney 53 schools reopening agency federal government navajo sioux tribe cdc data hospitalizations housing teachers students outbreaks transmission
A nurse takes a swab sample from a Navajo Indian woman complaining of virus symptoms, at a COVID-19 testing center at the Navajo Nation town of Monument Valley in Arizona on May 21, 2020. MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

Story at a glance

  • The Bureau of Indian Affairs told 53 schools across 10 states that they will reopen for in-person classes in September.
  • Native American teachers and officials are concerned with infections rising as a result of in-person classes.
  • CDC data shows Native Americans suffer severe coronavirus infections at a higher rate than other Americans.

The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), a federal agency that is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, announced last week that it is set to reopen 53 “brick and mortar schools” in reservations across 10 states, NBC News reports.  

The schools will reopen to the “maximum effect possible” on September 16.

The news came from an internal memo issued to bureau-operated schools on Friday, signed by Tara Sweeney, the assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs, which was shared with NBC. It outlined details for students and staff returning to live classes and also noted that families have the option to have their children participate in virtual schooling. Teachers are reportedly obligated to still teach in person.   

Schools are allowed to conduct total online learning if a COVID-19 outbreak surfaces within a school. 




“Students more effectively learn and grow while attending school during in-person academic instruction,” the memo reportedly reads. “The BIE is also better able to ensure continuity in student academic services and enrichment when students are present at school.”

Native American tribes have faced disproportionately adverse effects resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, primarily due to a lack of public health resources and crowded, often multi-generational living arrangements on reservations. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that Native Americans infected with COVID-19 have consistently higher hospitalization rates than those of non-Hispanic white coronavirus patients. 

“The disparities we see there with COVID are aligned with those that we see for hospitalizations and deaths due to influenza and other respiratory viruses,” Allison Barlow, the director of the Center for American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins University, told The New York Times.

While teachers’ unions outside of Native American communities fight to institute better public health surveillance for schools that chose to reopen amid the pandemic, faculty working on reservations hold similar fears that reopening school will result in an outbreak among students and adults.

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“I am concerned about the infection and the spread of the virus through our staffing, to the teachers, to the employees,” said Sue Parton, president of the union that represents BIE employees, to NBC reporters. “Then I look at it from the aspect of being a Native American community member myself, and I worry about the spread throughout our Native community. I don’t want to see that happen, and I just don’t think that there has been enough scientific evidence to show that it is safe for staff and students to go back to school as normal.”

In BIE-authored guidelines to help schools reopen, however, the department appears to give teachers and students some flexibility. It notably adds that for students, teachers and staff in at-risk demographics, such as having a preexisting condition or living with a dependent, accommodations like teaching classes remotely, having access to larger classrooms or being allowed to not return until infection risks have subsided should be available. 

Data shared with NBC from the Department of the Interior show that 25 members of the bureau staff, many of whom are Native American, have contracted the virus, with four dying from their infection. 

Statistics like these give educators cause for concern. NBC reports that on a conference call between teachers, the Native American community and BIE Director Tony Dearman, one educator said that “Life is what is important right now,” and advocated remote learning until the pandemic abates. 

“I wouldn’t take that risk. I just wouldn’t,” they said.  “And I don’t want to lose any staff or any students. It would be awful and tragic if anybody died on campus.”