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The Pandemic Knocked Many Native Students Off the College Track

As soon as Covid hit in March 2020, Curley recognized how difficult it would be for her school district to transition to remote learning. She estimated that only around 10 to 15 percent of her students had internet at home. “We just weren’t prepared to handle the loss of the school as an internet hub,” she said.

She spent last April trying to secure technology for students taking Advanced Placement exams. When hotspots and laptops weren’t available because of supply chain issues, the school broadcast its WiFi to the parking lot so kids could log on to take the AP tests on their phones while sitting in their cars. Early in the pandemic, school staff also printed out homework packets and delivered them by bus, or asked students to come to school once a week to pick them up. Some educators also dropped off packets at home for students who lacked transportation, said Bill McLaughlin, the Newcomb High School principal.

Curley said many of her best students failed dual enrollment classes at the local community college when it abruptly transitioned to remote learning. She received an alert from the college letting her know that she might want to check on a student who didn’t have electricity at home. That’s not uncommon: More than a quarter of the 55,000 homes in the Navajo Nation lack electricity. “What do you want me to do?” Curley recalled thinking. “I can’t give her electricity, but you can give her an extension.”

Many students used the school shutdown to spend more time working. Last fall, McLaughlin and other staff members started driving to the nearest McDonald’s, more than 30 miles away, to drop off homework packets because so many students got jobs there. “We would go through the drive thru,” McLaughlin said.

Eighteen-year-old Colby Benally, who is headed to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, in the fall, summed up his senior year at Newcomb succinctly. “It sucked,” he said, a sentiment shared by many of his peers. “We’re just trying to do our best to get through today without getting the symptoms of Covid.”

Benally said that most of his close friends aren’t thinking about college. “To them, it’s always been actually going to work right after high school,” he said.

Curley said the pandemic hampered her ability to keep students on task when it came to applying for college. Normally, she would have ensured that every graduating senior had, at a minimum, applied to the local community college to preserve the option of going to school in the fall. But this year, as she struggled to get in touch with students, “a lot fell on the kids’ shoulders,” she said. Fewer applied to college this spring; some of the students from last year’s graduating class who had applied, didn’t enroll, while others from the class of 2020 left college mid-semester.

For Jake, when learning went online, school started to recede from his mind. He lives with his grandparents, Juanita and Allen Bryant, who raised him because his parents weren’t ready to have kids, he said.

His grandmother works as a housekeeper at a casino more than an hour away, so Jake spends a lot of time alone with his grandfather, doing chores, cooking and feeding their 22 horses.

“When I was at home there was a lot of stuff that I had to do around the house to help my grandparents, so school wasn’t really on my mind,” Jake said. “I want to focus on home and help them out, so I can be there for them and help them out the way they helped me out when I was a kid.”

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