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COVID-19: Native American Educators Face Unique Challenges

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HAYWARD, Wis. -- Educators have raised fears about reopening classrooms during a pandemic - concerns that are amplified for schools in Native American communities with higher rates of COVID infection.

A Wisconsin tribal school is weighing those concerns with other barriers for students. Superintendent Jessica Hutchison of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School in Hayward, said she's heard from parents fearful of sending their children to school with the coronavirus still a threat.

However, other parents are feeling pressure to return to work. She said the nearby reservation has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic, leaving educators to factor in the home learning environment for some students. "None of the trauma and turmoil that Native students face on a daily basis has gone away," she said. That's why her staff is preparing to welcome back students who face challenges learning from home, in the safest environment possible, four days a week.

Hutchison said parents also can opt for all-distance learning, and they'll be prepared to shut their building down should they see any outbreaks. The distance-learning factor is viewed as a major hurdle for Native American and Indigenous communities across the country.

Sue Parton, who heads the Federation of Indian Service Employees, the union for staff at Bureau of Indian Education schools, said it must be addressed so that families vulnerable to the virus can help their kids succeed. Parton said the bureau needs to step up in that regard. "A lot of the reservations are located in rural areas; there's hardly any broadband available to them," she said. "The electronic devices - I think the BIE should be providing every single student an electronic device."

The BIE oversees more than 180 tribal schools and officially operates 53 of them, none in Wisconsin. The agency turned some heads recently when it announced plans for in-person learning at schools under its control. That prompted concerns from Parton's union about the health impacts for students and staff. But the plan does allow flexibility where there are outbreaks, or for at-risk individuals.

Mike Moen is the Morning Edition producer and serves as a staff reporter for WNIJ. Every morning, he works with Dan Klefstad to bring listeners the latest Illinois news. He also works with the rest of the news staff on developing and producing in-depth stories. Mike is a Minnesota native who likes movies, history, and baseball. When most people hear his last name, they assume he is 100-percent Scandinavian. But, believe it or not, he is mostly German.
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