COVID complicates college prep for Native students

It’s a crisp late afternoon in Northern New Mexico, the kind of day that invites you to drive with your windows down or chop firewood in preparation for winter.If this were a normal year, Marisa Gutierrez might not register the seasonal change. The 18 year old is usually beyond busy. But this is 2020, and the high school student body president, cheerleader, community organizer, and aspiring valedictorian is feeling cooped up.And pondering lost opportunities.Earlier this year the pandemic killed a conference she had hoped to attend at Emory University in Atlanta for Native American students across the country.The teenager, who is a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, one of New Mexico’s 23 Native American tribes, yearned to visit an out-of-state college campus.“I have been on college campuses before but nothing outside of New Mexico,” she said.  She felt for her peers, too, knowing the missed opportunity it likely represented for many.“I’ve had the advantage and opportunities to see a bunch of places, but a lot of people, specifically Natives, aren’t usually accustomed to looking outside of their Pueblo or outside of their tribe,” she said. “And so I think that would have been a great opportunity for them to experience, kind of, life outside the rez.” 

But the missed opportunity hasn’t knocked the high achieving Gutierrez off her quest.

Tribes in NM under intense pressure to complete census count by new deadline

The Navajo Nation, one of the hardest hit communities in the nation by the COVID-19 pandemic, is confronting a new enemy: Time. 

With three weeks to go before the US Census is scheduled to end, 19% of Navajo people have responded to the U.S. Census, a much lower rate than for New Mexico and the U.S. overall, and lags behind all other tribes located within the state other than Jicarilla Apache.The once-a-decade head count of the U.S. population helps determine federal funding for healthcare, housing, roads, and a range of other important services and robust responses by tribal members ensure that their communities receive an equitable share of federal resources. 

But the census deadline looms ominously following the Trump administration’s decision in early August to abruptly move it from the end of October to September 30. Earlier this month the Navajo Nation and the Gila River Indian Community joined a lawsuit filed last month by several nonprofits, including the National Urban League and the League of Women Voters, as well as cities and counties in a number of states, to keep the census deadline at the end of October. 

There is no guarantee the court fight will end in an extended deadline, however. Over the past month, the Navajo Nation, which is one of the largest tribes in the U.S. and dwarfs other tribes in New Mexico by size, has nudged upward the number of people who have responded to the census, with responses rising from 10% in late July to 19%  this week. But that’s significantly lower than its 53.6% goal, presented on the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department website. The expedited census deadline comes as the Nation is still recovering from the pandemic, after months of curfews and lockdowns during which census workers weren’t able to canvas rural and often remote Navajo communities.

Using tech and circuit riding to beat the pandemic

Kelly Maestas starts each weekday the same way, cranking up a school bus parked at the Cuba Independent School District bus barn.The sun has already risen over the San Pedro mountains in the Santa Fe National Forest. But on Friday morning a smoggy haze lingers over this rural redoubt of New Mexico thanks to the Medio fire just north of Santa Fe, the Pine Gulch Fire in Colorado or any of the 90 large fires in California. 

A few years ago Maestas traded in a big rig for the school bus. Rather than bustling with students, however, it’s empty save for a few dozen bags of meals and school assignments for the kids on his route.Over several hours, Maestas will stop 65 times — each stop a home of a student or students who attend Cuba’s schools — racking up 112 miles.These days Maestas and 10 other bus drivers are an integral component of the Cuba school district’s response to a global pandemic that mingles old-timey itinerant circuit-riding with 21st-century tech.Every day, the 11 bus drivers put close to 900 miles on their vehicles delivering food and education kits to the district’s more than 500 students who have yet to return to the classroom and in many cases, can not access the internet from home. Because so many Cuba students lack sufficient broadband or cellular service, the school district, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island, has distributed to every student special bracelets armed with a built-in USB-drive. Students use them to download lessons when they drive to an internet hotspot.

Census deadline moved up, surprising NM native communities

New Mexico’s tribal communities suddenly find themselves in a rush to reorganize their plans to ensure a complete census count after federal authorities on Monday abruptly moved the deadline up by a month, from the end of October to September 30. 

“We have pretty much lost a month of time to be able to gain that accurate count in our communities,” Ahtza Dawn Chavez, Executive Director of the Native American Voters Alliance Education Project, which heads up the New Mexico Native Census Coalition, told state leaders on Tuesday during a legislative hearing at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. “Our average self response rate is just over 30 percent, we have a lot of work to do going forward.” 

American Indian leaders across the country have reacted strongly to the news. In a joint statement issued Wednesday, national Native organizations said they were “deeply alarmed and concerned with this unwarranted and irresponsible decision.”  “Our tribal nations and tribal communities have been ravaged by COVID-19, and an extension of the Census enumeration period was a humane lifeline during an unprecedented global health catastrophe that provided critically needed additional time to tribal nations to ensure that all of everyone in their communities are counted,” the statement said.In a separate statement, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, who made history in 2018 as one of two indigenous women elected to Congress, said changing the deadline “flies in the face of Director (Steven) Dillinghan’s promise to me that he understood the importance of meeting our needs.” 

The once-a-decade census count provides population numbers that determine to a large degree how much public money flows to tribes and other communities through federal, state and local funding programs. The new deadline threatens to increase chances for an undercount in tribal communities that currently have a response rate far below the national rate of 63%. 

The presentation  by Chavez to the New Mexico Indian Affairs Committee highlighted how the COVID-19 pandemic has hindered the census count. Census officials need access to tribal lands to complete the count. Their work includes door-to-door drops of census packets and in-person follow-up visits to homes that haven’t responded. 

But census workers need permission of tribal authorities to enter tribal communities, and several tribes in New Mexico, which have been disproportionately hard-hit by the pandemic, are currently closed to non-members due to the public health emergency.

New Mexico tribes play catch up in census count

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed long standing social and economic inequities that many say are at the root of a highly disproportionate number of Native Americans afflicted with the illness. Native Americans make up more than half of the state’s positive coronavirus cases —  the majority are in San Juan and McKinley counties — but just 10.9% of its population, according to census data. As 2020 nears its halfway point, the pandemic threatens to worsen inequities in another way: the stunting of an ambitious and energetic rollout of the 2020 census count on tribal lands that will determine the amount of money going to the state’s tribes over the next decade. 

This story was produced by New Mexico in Depth in collaboration with the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.  

Already designated a hard-to-count population, the pandemic has contributed to a staggeringly low census response rate so far from tribes — a result census officials hope to turn around during the summer into the fall.Robust responses from the tribes, officials at the census emphasize, would ensure tribal communities receive their equitable share of  federal resources to help pay for healthcare, housing, roads, and a range of other important services. In New Mexico, where nearly every school district receives education dollars through the Title I program geared to assist low-income students,  90% of Native American students attend Title 1 schools, according to the NM Native Census Coalition. Census responses also help determine the amount of money flowing to housing programs, such as the Section 8, Indian Community Development Block Grants and the Indian Housing Block Grant that supports new or reconstruction of homes on tribal lands.

Is push for education equity at risk amid COVID-19 economic fallout?

Jasmine Yepa was happy with her daughters’ education at San Diego Riverside Charter School and Walatowa Headstart in Jemez Pueblo.Certified education assistants speak Towa, the Pueblo’s traditional language, with students while teachers build lesson plans in English. The education assistants also translate English lesson plans into Towa, giving children additional opportunities to hear and speak the language in a classroom setting.  

Through her work at the Native American Budget and Policy Institute, Yepa understands the importance of her daughters learning their culture and language to dilute what she calls a “white washed system” that assimilates non-white students into American culture. “Celebrating multiculturalism and multilingualism should help foster appreciation of diversity and foster respect for people’s differences,” she said. “It’s something that all policy makers should understand. Language and culture plays a huge role in not only maintaining our cultural way of life but also our core values.”

Then COVID-19 struck.

Public schools could avert deep cuts in June session, top lawmaker says

New Mexico has enough from savings plus new money from Washington to help public schools weather looming budget shortages, says Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, a powerful lawmaker who helps to shape each year’s state budget. “It would be prudent to make some cuts but not deep cuts for the 21 budget,” Smith said Thursday morning of the public education portion of the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. 

On Wednesday during an online update on COVID-19, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham expressed a desire to keep spending on public schools intact during a special legislative session she has called for June 18 to tackle a budget hole projected between $1.8 billion and $2.4 billion for the state’s fiscal year that begins July 1. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico and the State’s effort to limit the impact of the disease on residents. The news conference is being held at the State Capitol in Santa Fe, Wednesday May 20, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

On Thursday her spokesman, Tripp Stelnicki, reiterated his boss’ position: It’s “premature to talk about cuts. We’ll know when the special session gets closer.”

The significant hit to the state budget is due to a near shutdown of the economy to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a collapse in consumer spending and global demand for oil and gas, both of which feed New Mexico’s revenue base through wages and taxes. 

Smith based his opinion on multiple developments: the lion’s share of $120 million from the recently passed CARES Act in Washington that will go to the state’s 89 school districts and dozens of charter schools.