Internet dead zones and 'thick' homework packets took an emotional toll on Navajo students during COVID-19 school year. They didn't give up.

Sunnie R. Clahchischiligi
Searchlight New Mexico

This story was reported by Searchlight New Mexico, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico, and shared with USA TODAY.

Snuggled between tumbleweeds and utility poles, with a view of Ute Mountain through the windshield, high school sophomore Evan Allen placed his school-issued laptop on the center armrest of his grandmother’s truck and switched on his mobile Wi-Fi hotspot. Another school day was about to begin.

Every weekday, not long after the sun rested on the foothills of the Carrizo Mountains, Evan would rise from his foldout bed in his grandmother’s home in T’iis Názbąs, Arizona, on the Navajo Nation. At about 7:10 a.m., he’d grab his laptop, his school supplies and, if time allowed, some snacks, and make the 5 1/2-mile drive to the top of the hill above the local trading post, where a decent internet connection could be found.

School started at 8, but he made a point to get to the hill early and prepare for his seven classes from the driver’s seat of his másáni’s Chevy. He’d stay in the truck for up to 10 hours, surrounded by dirt roads, parched juniper and desert terrain that stretched beyond the horizon.

Evan, now 16, attended virtual classes from the top of that same hill for more than a year, starting last March, when his school in the Navajo (Diné) community of Shiprock, New Mexico, went remote because of the COVID-19 pandemic. His grandmother’s house was in an internet and cellular dead zone, so the hotspot in the truck was his only option. 

“It’s exhausting, physically and mentally,” he confessed this spring. “I have to constantly do all this stuff that’s back-to-back, and I don’t have time to rest.”

High school student Evan Allen attends virtual classes from his grandmother’s truck on the Navajo Nation, surrounded by high desert.

Evan wasn’t alone. Thousands of schoolchildren on the Navajo Nation live without internet access, computers, cellular service or basics like electricity. When the pandemic hit, more than 23,398 Native American students in New Mexico lacked the high-speed internet and devices they needed for remote learning, the state’s Public Education Department concluded. The true figure is significantly higher, since the agency’s calculation didn’t include the thousands of Indigenous students in Bureau of Indian Education schools, Albuquerque Public Schools and others.

Students had to drive or be driven miles from home in search of a Wi-Fi connection. They sat in vehicles, for hours on end, on land fought for by their ancestors, drawing on their resilience.

A day in the life of Navajo Nation high school student Evan Allen

A typical morning for Evan began with music class, and he sometimes moved his laptop to the tailgate of the truck and played his percussion instruments: concert snare, marching snare, mallets, bass drum.

After band, he did work for his “career exploration” course. Then it was on to Navajo language and, finally, biology, with a five-minute break between classes.

He got just 45 minutes for lunch, so he usually stayed on the hill and ate the food he packed or bought something at the Teec Nos Pos Trading Post, a small general store in the Four Corners area, near the intersection of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah.

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“I usually wait up there because coming back down here and going back up, I don’t have much time," he said.

After lunch came English, and then the class Evan looked forward to least – Integrated Math 2, followed by history. The final class let out at 3:30 p.m. But because he didn’t have internet access at home, he sometimes remained parked on the hill until 6 or 6:30, doing homework. 

In the winter, he sat in the truck wrapped in a heavy wool blanket, hoping the cold weather didn’t cause an internet outage. The Chevy got stuck in the snow and mud once, prompting him to find a backup spot for bad weather.

Evan Allen, pictured beneath the U.S. Highway 64 bridge in Shiprock, New Mexico, attended school last year while sitting in a truck on a remote hill — the only place he could get a decent internet connection.

During the monsoon, in July and August, internet access was even spottier. Evan often had such a poor connection that he couldn’t log on. Even when he described the situation, some teachers insisted on counting him absent, he said.

“They just say, ‘Yeah, the weather’s bad, but it’s your responsibility to be here, and that’s up to you,’" he said. "It’s frustrating because they don’t understand that some students actually want to be there, but it’s what they have that’s not working – the hotspot’s not connecting, or the internet is slow. They just blame you.”

His grandmother’s home, where he lives with his mother, is off Indian Route 5114, not far from the T’iis Názbąs (Teec Nos Pos) Chapter House, in Arizona. (In the Four Corners area, students often attend schools in neighboring states.) Initially, Evan’s school offered him a hotspot for internet access. But the device didn’t work in the house, so his mother, Letitia Moone, asked the school for help. She received little or none.

“They were just like, ‘Keep trying, do what you’re doing.’ They’d tell Evan he’s doing a good job, and that was it," Moone said.

The school did give Evan a different hotspot, saying the new one would work better.

"It didn’t,” Moone said.

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Evan’s school performance began to suffer. One teacher emailed Moone, saying that Evan was logging in late and struggling to get homework turned in. Moone, though she couldn’t afford it, started shopping for their own hotspot. She called every internet provider on and near the reservation: They all told her she lived in a dead zone. She eventually did buy a device, but it worked only on the top of the hill.

Lunch was another problem. Evan’s school in Shiprock – 30 miles southeast of his home – typically supplied the meal to students, all of whom are low-income and qualify for free lunch. But Evan didn’t receive the food all year, Moone said.

Some students had their lunch delivered by bus, she discovered. But when she asked the school about a delivery for Evan, Moone said she never got a response. 

She could see how neglect from the school was affecting her son. Heartsick, she tried to do everything she could to make things easier on him, especially since she knew other students were afforded conveniences he was not. 

The school never gave “caring support,” she felt.

“It’s really not support at all, because I never really got answers and I never really got help,” she said.

Lost connections: The lasting impact of remote learning on Diné students

Help was in short supply across all of Indian Country.

Indigenous students in New Mexico sat in the cold and heat outside of community Wi-Fi hotspots that were set up in school buses parked at gas stations or on dirt roads. Students drove for miles to work outside of schools or chapter houses in a desperate search for signals. And even at these hotspots, they often grappled with slow internet speeds that made it difficult to do schoolwork or download and upload assignments.

“Most of us, we don’t like it,” Evan said. “Some classmates just gave up. They left school, or didn’t even sign up at all.”

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Problems with internet access on the Navajo Nation were not new – government agencies had documented them for more than 15 years – but the situation was vastly exacerbated when the pandemic struck and all schools switched to remote learning. 

The coronavirus swept through the Navajo Nation with ferocity, fueling some of America’s highest infection rates. As of July 6, more than 31,000 Diné had tested positive for the virus, according to the Navajo Department of Health and Navajo Epidemiology Center. While the majority recovered, at least 1,354 died. More than 4,000 children between the ages of 10 and 19 tested positive.

COVID-19 vaccinations have not yet been approved for children under age 12, so they still face possible risks. But more than half of all adults on the Navajo Nation are now vaccinated, thanks to the tribe’s successful vaccine rollouts. And since February, schools have slowly begun reopening on the reservation and in nearby towns.

Evan’s school, funded by the Bureau of Indian Education and operated by a local nonprofit, chose to remain virtual for the remainder of the year, which suited Evan: He feared contracting the virus and wanted to keep working from his spot on the hill. 

Students at other schools had the option of returning to traditional classrooms or continuing with remote learning, with its unstable internet connections and flawed digital platforms. Navajo families were left to choose between an effective in-person environment – or the safety of their children. Many chose the latter.

For Diné students, however, safety came at a cost. Many online learners dealt with depression, stress, isolation or despair. In cases like Evan’s, they managed to survive by exerting formidable discipline and commitment. But it took its toll.

The lack of support resulted in some students dropping out of school; it led to bad grades and emotional exhaustion. And for kids like Evan, it meant working even harder for an education that may be their only hope of future success.

Clifton Mariano, middle, and two of his 10 children watch television at their home in Shiprock, New Mexico.

Internet issues, times nine, for Mariano family of Shiprock, New Mexico

Shiprock residents Tammie and Clifton Mariano have 10 children at home, nine of whom attend three different schools in the Four Corners area of the Navajo Nation. Each had experiences like Evan’s.

Five children attended Mesa Elementary School; one went to Atsá Biyáázh Community School; and three went to Northwest Middle and High School, all in Shiprock. 

The kids in elementary school waited more than half of the school year to get the digital devices they needed. The inequities couldn’t have been more blatant: Tammie and Clifton were stuck guiding the children through paper workbooks while a teacher taught their wired classmates online.

“Some people are lucky that they have the money to get laptops and all that,” Clifton said. “So it’s kind of hard for people that are struggling.” 

Clifton and Tammie were students themselves: They graduated this spring from a Diné College branch. So they needed to do virtual schoolwork, too.

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“At first, we were going to McDonald’s and KFC” to find a good connection, Tammie said. But the Navajo Nation soon launched one of the strictest lockdowns in the country, with curfews and rigid travel restrictions. 

Getting online became nearly impossible.

“We used our phone hotspot and we tried to turn in assignments, but they wouldn’t go through,” she said.

The couple eventually decided to invest in internet installation, which took weeks and cost about $500; even then, the service was poor. 

All of the children struggled.

Carter Mariano shoots hoops at his family's home in Shiprock, New Mexico.

One of the couple’s sons, a third-grader, was given 21 math assignments in a single week, with lasting negative impacts, Tammie said.

“The homework packets were thick” – about an inch and a half – “and he basically stayed up doing it until like 12 or 1 in the morning. He would sit there pulling his hair,” or he’d start crying. 

With their budget decimated by the extra digital purchases, affording food for a family of 12 also became a problem. The kids attending Northwest initially got a free lunch daily, but that changed, without explanation, to only three days a week. The Marianos had to ask their children to save some of their lunch from one day so they’d have something to eat on the next. 

All of the children’s schools received not only federal Impact Aid, but also funding from the federal CARES Act. Although those funds are typically not enough to offset all costs, the lack of lunch distribution and tech resources left the Marianos wondering where the money went.

“Schools (everywhere) got all this money – what are they doing with it?” Clifton said. “Did all of it go toward where they say it’s going to go, or just some of it? Basically, I guess we’ll never know.”

A MacBook, Wi-Fi and running water for every child in 'a perfect world'

School staff and teachers, for their part, described difficult work environments that made it impossible to help students. Some had to make their own homework packets and pay for copies out of their own pockets. (Searchlight New Mexico contacted nearly a dozen staffers and teachers, but none wanted to go on the record, fearing retaliation and loss of employment.)

Like students, many teachers had no broadband at home and had to drive for miles to get internet access. Some used personal laptops and bought cameras with their own money, just to be able to teach their classes from a parking lot in Shiprock. They shared stories of students disappearing from classes altogether, and of parents who never responded when staff tried to find the vanished children.

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Gary Montoya, school board president for the Central Consolidated School District, saw still other crises. He traveled the dirt and washboard roads in the Four Corners region, off and on the Navajo Nation, to deliver homework packets to students, accompanied by his wife, Karla Aspaas-Montoya, a teacher in the district.

“There were weeks and days where we were driving 60 miles round trip to deliver to these kids and check on them,” Montoya said.

The sprawling district – spanning nearly 3,000 square miles – serves more than 5,700 students.

Some families didn’t have running water or electricity. Others had no vehicle. Some students were looked after by grandparents, who often had little formal education and couldn’t help with the schoolwork. Parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents pleaded for assistance. 

Montoya said at one point he realized that the best he and his wife could do to help was to deliver packets and try to stay in touch with families that needed it.

“It would be nice if in a perfect world every child had a MacBook, a Chromebook, had Wi-Fi and running water,” he said.

It's not an option to simply give up on school: 'My future is on the line'

While the troubles of remote learning formed an interwoven fabric of failure, it was the students who were most affected. Some have been scarred, afraid to return to school. Others will need to repeat a grade or will suffer in the coming school year because they learned so little during the pandemic.

Still, in pickup trucks on hillsides, students have also shown enormous resiliency. 

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Evan’s mother said she saw it in her son every day. He and countless children like him chose to keep trying, keep driving up the hill, keep parking at trading posts, keep sitting outside their local chapter houses, keep logging on. 

“I commend him for it because it takes hard work and he’s very committed to his education,” Moone said recently, fighting back tears. Evan had finished the spring term and officially become a high school junior. He is determined to forge a better life for himself, his mother said.

The fall semester starts in August. Evan doesn’t know yet whether he’ll be in a classroom or in a truck on the hill. But he’ll be there. 

Because for Evan, the risk in giving up is far greater for a reservation student learning out of his grandmother’s truck in the middle of the desert.

“My future is on the line,” he said. “If I don’t do this, then there’s nothing for me at all.”

This story was produced with support from the Doris O'Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship, awarded by the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.