In the midst of pandemic, Warm Springs parents struggle to connect
Editor's Note: As Oregon leaders grapple with rising cases of COVID-19, many rural school districts, including Jefferson County School District 509-J, have had to postpone plans to return to full-time classroom learning. This fall, Pamplin Media Group and Underscore.news teamed up to look at how rural schools were responding to distance learning. This article, first published last month, explores the challenges faced by parents, students and teachers on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
He then drives home, sets the breakfasts out on his kitchen counter, and begins logging into six laptops spread out in the two-bedroom house. Atticus, his second grader, has his laptop in the living room. Avan Garcia, a sophomore, wears gaming headphones. His other four kids are in their bedrooms.
For the next eight hours, Garcia goes from room to room, making sure his kids stay in school.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted rural communities throughout Oregon, including the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, a sprawling 650,000-acre wedge of high desert land that is home to about 2,500 members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs — including Garcia's family.
Jefferson County has a population of just 23,000 people and reports the fourth-highest COVID-19 case-count per-capita in Oregon — almost 2.5 times higher than the rate in Multnomah County, home of Portland, the state's largest city.
During one outbreak this summer, The Bulletin newspaper, located in Bend, looked at The New York Times' national COVID database and noted that "if the ZIP code in Warm Springs were its own county, it would rank in the top 5% of counties in the nation with the highest incidence of new cases of COVID-19."
Elementary and middle school children attend school on the reservation at Warm Springs K-8 Academy, where 88% of the students are Native American. Teenagers are a 40-minute bus ride away from a high school in Madras, where 31% of students are Native.
Historically, Native American students have lower attendance and graduation rates and tested lower than white students in the district on key subject areas. That "achievement gap" has been closing, but students at Warm Springs K-8 Academy still trail their peers in some key academic measurements.
For example, in the 2018-2019 school year, 52% of white elementary school students in Jefferson County were meeting English Language Arts standards compared to 25% of Native students. In the same year, 46% of white students met math goals compared to just 22% of Native students. Graduation rates have reached 85% among white students, compared to 59% among Native students.
The pandemic has strained a system struggling to keep up with the rest of the state.
Parents become teachers
Rural school districts across Oregon have been coming up with innovative ways to create digital classrooms to keep education going during the pandemic. In Jefferson County, for example, instructors are offering study halls, yoga classes, and sports remotely.
But those innovations — coming during a time of forced distance learning — have a cost. For parents like Garcia, it means he becomes a teacher of sorts.
"Being a single parent, I'm taking off work to stay at home so the kids can go to school at home," says Garcia, who works at an alcohol treatment center in Madras and is a part-time mechanic.
"I had no clue what I was gonna do as far as this year goes," Garcia says. The kinds of equipment required for digital learning aren't found in every household. High-speed internet, and even internet itself, still aren't available in some rural parts of Oregon.
Jefferson County School District stepped up by offering students Wi-Fi hot spots and Chromebooks.
"They had a social-distant open house," says Garcia. "You drive to each station and a teacher asks you if you need a laptop, or a hot spot, or something else."
At first, his kids had a hard time adjusting to school online.
"The teacher would say, 'Atticus is unmuting himself,' or he would walk around the living room. I learned it would help to go sit with him sometimes," Garcia said.
There is one bright spot in all of this, he said. While he and other parents struggle with connecting to devices, they are creating closer ties with his kids' teachers.
"I didn't have much contact with the teachers before this," Garcia says, laughing. "Now, I keep in constant contact with them. We text each other now. The reality is that the connection between the teacher and me became stronger."
Cars become classrooms
However, not everyone has a flexible schedule. Tasheena Arthur, who has two children at K-8 Academy, has not been able to stay at home during the school day. She works 10-hour shifts at the Indian Head Casino, owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
She says Emmalina, a fourth grader, and Danielle, a sixth grader, are self-motivated but struggle with distance learning.
"I have to be quiet so that they get their work done," Arthur says. "They honestly haven't been in school every day, because the Wi-Fi at home don't work, and I don't know anyone who has Wi-Fi I can borrow," Arthur said.
So, on most days, after her shift ends at 2 p.m., she heads home, picks up her kids and their Chromebooks and heads back to the casino.
"We park where all the semis park in the east parking lot," Arthur says. "It gets pretty good connection."
She says Danielle can work fairly independently, but Emmalina tends to need more help. Arthur does what she can.
"I don't want to sit at the casino parking lot because I work there for 10 hours," she says. But it is the only option she has to keep her kids in school.
In addition to the logistics, Arthur says the timing is challenging. She's not able to get back to the casino every afternoon, and when she does, by the time her kids are finished with the day's lessons, it's late. "I've been emailing my fourth grader's teacher saying, 'Hey, we're lost. But it's after-hours, so he can't really help me."
Arthur was unaware that their home internet connection wouldn't work for lessons, so she didn't apply for a hot spot when they first were offered. Now, she's been told, it's too late.
"I called the school, and they said they don't have any more hot spots," she said.
But even with hot spots, parents in Jefferson County face additional obstacles.
"The community has been getting hot spots, but in parts of the reservation, my students have been having trouble with connectivity," says Shayla Stwyer, who teaches Native American languages at Warm Springs K-8 Academy and has three children of her own in school. "It disrupts entire lesson plans when students can't connect."
In Garcia's home, Atticus shows his dad the screen of his Chromebook. "This site cannot be reached," it reads.
"I don't know what to do when this happens," Garcia says. "I'll call the company again."
This article is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group, and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.
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