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As the Navajo Nation battled COVID-19, teachers fought to connect with traumatized students

Fourth grader Braylon Stash raises his hand during a math class at Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary School in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Fourth grader Braylon Stash raises his hand during a math class at Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary School in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Denece Kitto’s first days as principal of Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary came as the pandemic ravaged the community she’d just been hired to serve.

As she dealt with all the ways “distance learning” was more difficult for the children of the Navajo Nation, Kitto, who was hired in July 2020, also listened to how the pandemic was changing families forever.

As she discussed broken computers, a lack of internet access, and abysmal participation numbers with her staff, she kept hearing a tragic refrain.

“Everybody was losing someone, and it was just heart-wrenching,” she said. “They were just living in grief.”

One regret she heard expressed over and over was that their loved ones “were dying with their stories in them.”

That’s when faculty meetings included more than writing lesson plans and discussing ways to keep parents and students engaged in learning from a distance.

On the left, Cara Luna, a Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary School fourth grade teacher, hands a bag of food to Alexus Bedonie from a school bus in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. While schools were closed due to COVID-19, buses delivered homework and food to students two days a week. On the right, classrooms are full again 18 months later as Jody Lee-Chadde teaches fourth grade at at the school on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
On the left, Cara Luna, a Tse’bii’nidzisgai Elementary School fourth grade teacher, hands a bag of food to Alexus Bedonie from a school bus in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. While schools were closed due to COVID-19, buses delivered homework and food to students two days a week. On the right, classrooms are full again 18 months later as Jody Lee-Chadde teaches fourth grade at at the school on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“We started to discuss how we could relieve some of this trauma,” she said. “It came to me while I was talking to them that writing our stories, our trauma, journaling is one of the social/emotional tools that could help them heal.”

So while children were spending more time with parents, grandparents and extended family, Kitto suggested asking students to interview family members for a project in which they would compile all of the stories and try to publish them. She reached out to the high school to see if they wanted to participate, and got a quick yes.

Like most of the assignments last year, many students didn’t even bother to attempt it. But some did, and Kitto said the result is a beautiful book that not only captures some interesting and moving stories, it’s now being sold to raise money for a scholarship fund. Inquiries about purchasing the book can be sent to rcly@sjsd.org.

It was, she said, one of the few silver linings from a school year that was lost for most of her students.

“It was terrible,” she said of the participation in online school. “We’d have two, three, five, seven students on the best days we ever had online.”

Her staff spent countless hours writing lessons and creating paper packets that were then delivered by bus to the students. Her teachers wrote the lessons, but it was her staff that knew the families and delivered not only the packets, but also food boxes and meals for the children.

She said they did everything they could to make the deliveries interesting, even exciting, and many of her “rewards” were aimed at encouraging parents to remain dedicated.

“We sent stories parents could read to students, had a STEM project, art projects … always something heritage related every single month,” she said. “We tried to give them something to look forward to, a reward, a fun project that they could do as a family.”

Still, despite the best efforts of teachers, staff and parents, most of the children are now behind.

On the left, homework is boxed and ready to be distributed on bus driver Rosie Fatt’s route in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. While schools are closed due to COVID-19, school bus drivers delivered homework and food to students two days a week. On the right, school playgrounds are full again as fourth grader Braylon Stash flies a paper airplane outside of Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary School in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
On the left, homework is boxed and ready to be distributed on bus driver Rosie Fatt’s route in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. While schools are closed due to COVID-19, school bus drivers delivered homework and food to students two days a week. On the right, school playgrounds are full again as fourth grader Braylon Stash flies a paper airplane outside of Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary School in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“When they came back, most of them were not really at the level they should be,” said fourth grade teacher Cara Luna. “So it’s kind of going back and forth to third-grade level to get them connected with fourth grade.”

Jody Chadde-Lee said in addition to students being behind, the relationships are just not as strong.

“They’re a bit behind, but I think, interestingly enough, I think they feel the urgency as much as the teachers, and most of them are on board for sticking to it and putting in the hard work. … They’re happy to be back.”

Kitto agrees with that assessment.

“In spite of the learning loss, which isn’t their fault, they are so resilient,” she said. “Our students are so excited to be here in person. … And my job is to make it so they’ll cry if they can’t come to school. I want parents to do whatever it takes to help these kids show up.”

And so, the work continues.

Fourth graders Darrell Lee and Braylon Stash chat on the playground at Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary School in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Fourth graders Darrell Lee and Braylon Stash chat on the playground at Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary School in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News