At the beginning of the pandemic, 80% of students in the Cuba Independent School District couldn’t connect online from home. Almost a year later, the problem is considerably smaller, said Tim Chavez, the district’s Technology Director. Because cell phone providers are the best way for people in the area to connect to the internet, Chavez said, the district equipped most students with a device to boost their signal for high speed internet and bought a subscription to satellite internet for the few homes out of cell phone range.
Still, there are “dead zones” that make remote learning a challenge for a few students.Those obstacles could disappear soon.
Lawmakers allocated $133 million dollars to broadband during this year’s legislative session, an infusion of money they say will help unlock federal dollars to close New Mexico’s yawning digital divide.
This week the Biden administration estimated more New Mexicans live in areas without broadband infrastructure or where there’s only one such internet provider than residents in most surrounding states. For a large slice of the public, and most students in New Mexico, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed a large chunk of life into a digital space. School instruction went online.
As New Mexico continues to amp up vaccine distribution, health officials don’t appear to be allocating a greater number of doses to those living in low-income areas that have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those areas include McKinley County, the southern border region, and communities in central New Mexico where some of the highest rates of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths have occurred.
Other than some targeted distribution to congregant facilities like nursing homes and prisons, as well as health care and medical workers, the state is taking an approach of calling up individuals who’ve registered on the state vaccine portal. People are prioritized based on various risk categories, such as age, underlying conditions, or being an essential worker. “…basically we’re randomizing them to see who will receive that vaccine dose,” New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. It’s an approach designed to ensure there is no favoritism in vaccine access, Collins said.
But the hardest hit populations are low income communities that are disproportionately Native American and Latino, Black and other communities of color, and there is currently no publicly available information about whether or not vaccine distribution is sufficiently reaching these groups.
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.
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.
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.
About 30 toddlers had already arrived on July 13 for their day at the UNM Children’s Campus when Daniela Baca learned someone who visited the center regularly had tested positive for COVID-19.
Within an hour, the facility had emptied out and she had contacted the state health department. “We needed to stop accepting children,” she said. “We switched gears into making sure that we notified families what was going on.”
By mid-day, Baca had shifted her focus from caring for children to working with a pandemic rapid response team composed of workers from several state agencies. The team tested all staff and children that came into contact with the person infected by the virus, sanitized every inch inside and outside. They also tried to find out every person the infected person might have come into contact to prevent the spread at other locations.
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.
A coloring book developed to encourage people to return their census forms.A coloring book to encourage Native Americans to fill out the census / Courtesy of New Mexico Native Census Coalition
While 99 percent of homes on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation have received their “Update Leave” census packet–a specific form with an identification number that is geo-tagged to the person’s home–four tribes in the state have yet to allow census workers to begin dropping the packets door to door because of COVID-19 concerns.
Jicarilla Apache and the Pueblos of Zia, Pojoaque and Acoma have hired tribal members to drop packets at doors but haven’t started the training necessary to begin the work, Census officials said Tuesday during a media briefing.
The door-to-door packet delivery is designed to target rural and hard-to-reach homes. In August, census workers will begin doing in-person visits to homes that haven’t returned the packets. But how that will work in tribes that have yet to start the drops at the door remains unclear. The deadline to complete the census is October 31.
“They are in lockdown right now, that’s why we are not able to progress,” said Cathy Lacey, the U.S. Census Regional Director in Denver that oversees the operation in New Mexico tribes. “It could be that we’re never able to get on (these particular tribal lands) and do our Update Leave operation and we are in talks right now that we absolutely have to get on in order to do our non response follow up operation.”
Because tribal residents are encouraged to wait until they receive their packet, these communities have some of the lowest census returns in the nation.
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.
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.”