Living in internet dead zones and sometimes without electricity at home, Indigenous youths in New Mexico and Arizona went to extraordinary lengths to attend virtual classes
In a landscape of 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 wifi 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 7.10am, he’d grab his laptop, his school supplies and, if time allowed, some snacks, and make the 5.5-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, Northwest middle and high school, in the Navajo (Diné) community of Shiprock, New Mexico, went remote because of the pandemic. His grandmother’s house was in an internet and cellular dead zone, so the hotspot in the truck was his best 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.”
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 wifi connection and to sit in vehicles, for hours on end. Parked on land their ancestors fought for, they drew from their resilience.
A truck for a classroom
A typical morning for Evan began with music class. He sometimes moved his laptop to the tailgate of the truck and played his percussion instruments outdoors: 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.
“I usually wait up there because coming back down here and going back up, I don’t have much time.”
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 33.0pm. 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.
During the monsoon seasons, 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.’ 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,” he said. “They just blame you.”
His grandmother’s home, where his mother also lives, is located 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.” The school did give Evan a different hotspot, saying the new one would work better. “It didn’t,” Moone said.
Evan’s school performance began to suffer. One teacher emailed Moone saying he 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 – located 30 miles south-east 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.
Help was in short supply across all of Indian Country. Indigenous students in New Mexico sat in the cold and heat outside community wifi hotspots that were set up in school buses parked at gas stations or on dirt roads. Students drove for miles to park outside 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.
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 Covid-19 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 6 July, more than 31,000 Diné have tested positive for the virus, according to the Navajo department of health and Navajo Epidemiology Center. While the majority recovered, at least 1,354 people have died. More than 4,000 children between the ages of 10 and 19 have 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 been reopening on the reservation and in nearby towns.
Evan’s school, funded by the Bureau of Indian Education and operated by a local non-profit, 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.
Disconnection times nine
Shiprock residents Tammie and Clifton Mariano have 10 children at home, nine of whom attend three different schools in the Four Corners area.
“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. 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.
‘Pulling his hair’
One of the couple’s sons, a third grader, was given 21 math assignments in a single week, with lasting negative impacts, Tammie continued. “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 squeezed by the extra digital purchases, affording food for a family of 12 became a problem. The kids attending Northwest initially got a daily free lunch, 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.”
Packets and empty pockets
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.
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 reservation, 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.
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 wifi and running water,” he 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 Evan knows that 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.”