Navajo-Hopi Nations,Flagstaff & Winslow News
Sun, April 18

Tuba City Unified School District shifts to optional in person learning for students
Board votes to offer in person learning options; Tuba City High School and junior high return to school March 30

Tuba City Unified School District announced some of its schools will  open for in person learning in March. (Photo/To'Nanees'Dizi Local Government staff)

Tuba City Unified School District announced some of its schools will open for in person learning in March. (Photo/To'Nanees'Dizi Local Government staff)

TUBA CITY, Ariz. — On March 13, 2020, Tuba City Unified School District (TCUSD) went on its annual spring break. Children eagerly left school that Friday looking forward to a week off with no homework, tests or long hours of sitting in a classroom.

Who knew that this would be the last day any of them would step foot in a classroom for the remainder of 2020.

That same day Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency in the Nation because of the COVID-19 pandemic, essentially closing the Nation, including all schools and educational facilities.

One year later — and nine months of virtual learning — TCUSD has reopened its doors to in-person learning.

On March 22, 29 Kindergarten through fifth-grade students marched to their classroom for the first time in 53 weeks. The very next day 47 students showed up to in-person instruction.

Tuba City Elementary was the very first school in Tuba City to open its doors to in-person learning.

Now, both Tuba City Junior High and Tuba City High School are preparing to do the same.

This decision was made after a TCUSD special school board meeting March 16, where it was decided that grades Kindergarten through fifth grade would be the first grades to return to in-person schooling with the option for virtual learning while TCJH and TCHS continued with remote learning.

Now, Tuba City Junior High and Tuba City High School students now have the option to return to in-person learning options starting March 30

On March 3, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued Executive Order 2021-04, requiring all districts in the state to offer in-person learning by March 15, or the Monday after spring break. Included in the order were community levels of transmissions and how a school district could offer in-person learning.

On March 10, the Navajo Nation rescinded its stay-at-home order and implemented a safer-at-home order, which allowed the Navajo Nation to transition from Red to Orange Phase.

TCUSD – which had been applying for waivers from the Navajo Nation Department of Diné Education (DODE) to remain under virtual learning orders, per the Navajo Nation – is no longer eligible for the waivers because the Nation rescinded the stay-at-home order and implemented the safer at-home order.

“Since August (2020) we have been applying for the waiver,” said Risha Vanderway, superintendent of TCUSD. “We are a public school on tribal land. We have to abide by Arizona Department of Education guidelines. The waivers from the DODE allowed us to remain virtual under President Nez’s executive order. (Because) the Navajo Nation rescinded the stay-at-home order, we cannot, by law, apply for the waiver. With the Navajo Nation withdrawing that order, schools have to reopen.”

Parent’s choice

Vanderway made it clear that Ducey’s executive order requires all state school districts offer in-person learning.

“We are offering in-person learning with the option of distant learning,” Vanderway said. “Parents always have a choice. We are not forcing parents to send their kids to school. We are opening our doors, but parents have a choice.”

The other component of Ducey’s executive order was the transmission rate present in a community. When Ducey’s executive order was issued, Coconino County was considered high risk. As of March 24, the county’s transmission rate has dropped to the moderate level.

Currently, the Navajo Nation has seen its lowest levels of COVID-19 transmission rates since September, with 0 cases over a 24-hour period and 0 deaths reported March 22.

Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation’s COVID-19 Dashboard reported eight cases in the TCRHCC Service Unit in 7 days, and a transmission rate of 28/100,000 people, implying that Tuba City is not only ready to transition into the Yellow Phase, but also has numbers that would allow the service unit to move into the Green Phase.

“It is great that the vaccination program and the community acceptance has decreased cases so dramatically that we are in the yellow zone approaching the green zone for reopening gating measures,” said Dr. Diana Hu, pediatrician at TCRHCC. “There is lots of evidence this will be safe if the families assess the risk appropriately before sending (students) to school and the school enforces masking, social distancing, hand hygiene and vaccination of the adult staff.”

Hu said additional evidence has been seen that disparities in education have been accentuated by the pandemic, and the willingness of the school staff and community to resume in-person school based on the science and (epidemiology) is to be commended.

Safe and supportive learning

Vanderway strongly affirmed that while the school has been ordered to provide an in-person learning option, safety is a top priority.

“The most important thing to me is safety. We are going to do everything we can to develop mitigation strategies that support the safety of our students, teachers, and staff,” she said.

As the school learns best practices, Vanderway said protocols can be modified to ensure optimal safety standards.

“These protocols are living documents, meaning that although they are solid, they will also be adaptive,” she said.

Vanderway and her team have been working nonstop since this pandemic started. From day one, their leadership team has taken the safety and wellbeing of their students and staff seriously, she said. Vanderway noted that she’s been at work every day, including some weekends.

“There’s been a lot of late nights working on strategies and protocols,” she added.

The TCUSD Reopening Plan, including protocols for students and staff are available at www.tcusd.org/covid-19-resource-center.

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