Students and families are adjusting as the coronavirus outbreak worsens

Kyle Knox

Gila River Indian News


As the disruption of day-to-day activities and routines from COVID-19 occur throughout the country, school closures have rippled across the Gila River Indian Community affecting students, educators and families. 


The Tribal Education Department (TED) is addressing this public health issue with a proactive approach of keeping students home while finding solutions to provide other services. TED is “committed to ensuring that Community Members receive educational support and resources during the recent closures and changes to educational facilities in the state of Arizona.”


TED is supporting schools by linking school resources from within and outside the Community to students and families. 

As of this week, like many around the state, most K-12 schools have extended their Spring Breaks to March 27 as a precautionary measure against the COVID-19 pandemic.


Community schools during this time will be performing deep cleanings within their facilities, as recommended by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). And as of now, these closures are based on the actions recommended by the Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on March 15.


Additional actions include TED Student Advisors who are, “working to gather online resources for their students; this includes online tutoring, and free support.” K-12 staff is also assisting off-reservation schools to make sure students have instructional materials needed to complete any additional work.  


Student Advisors will be continuing to check in with their students and families, as well as helping distribute meals as needed. Many schools are currently working on plans to distribute food and meals at various locations within the Community for students, and in some cases, their families.


TED advises all Community members to visit your student’s school website for up-to-date information. And they also encourage everyone to contact Student Advisors who are available by phone and email from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.


Additional actions are developing to service current college students. Upon returning from spring break, most universities and colleges have closed their classrooms and switched to an online format. And many have stated they will continue with the online format indefinitely.


Some colleges and universities are offering emergency aid to students in need of food and supplies. These services vary from campus to campus, and up to date information is found on the school’s webpage. TED advises students to make a habit of checking their student portals as schools continue sending updates as the semester progresses.


For vocational/trade school students, similar actions are being enforced where some schools are changing to online course work. Again, students should check with their campus and follow up with their GRIC Student Advisor for updates to scheduling and school closures.


TED is aware that some challenges with schools switching to the online format, and not all students may have access to the internet or a computer. Those who are experiencing difficulty acquiring the necessary resources should contact their GRIC Student Services Advisor as soon as possible.


Advisors will increase communication accordingly with students and sending emails and letters to the addresses on file regarding the scholarship program this week. Contact TED if your contact information has recently changed.


And lastly, the TED Culture and Language Program will continue with culture and language instruction via various formats to the Community. With the help of the Culture Teachers from the schools and others interested in culture and language, revitalization lessons will be available soon.


TED wants to assure the Community that they will continue to assist students with questions and concerns. A spokesperson for TED said, “we will do our best to get our students the resources needed to help you complete the semester successfully. We wish you good health and peace during this time.”


Early Education Child Care Facilities are also closed through March 27 in the following locations: District 3 Sacaton Head Start and Early Head Start and Early Education Child Care; District 4 Santan Head Start and Early Head Start; District 5 Vah-ki Head Start and Early Head Start; and District 6 Komatke Head Start and Early Head Start.


To speak with a representative from each of these programs, you may contact the Tribal Education Department from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday at (520) 562-3662.  


As families prepare for their students to remain out of school, the local Boys and Girls Clubs of the East Valley branches remain open and will provide activities during this time. GRIC clubs and clubs throughout the valley are changing their hours to service families without childcare. The new hours are from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from their regular afternoon/evening hours.


In addition to the new hours, branches are prescreening members before they attend the new Club hours while increasing their sanitation and cleaning efforts for members and surfaces in the Club.


Tamara Peters, Program Director for the Komatke Branch, said they are doing everything in their power to prevent the spread of germs within the facility. Upon entering, visitors must wash their hands and use hand sanitizer before entering any room in the Club. And within every room, there are hand sanitizers for all to use.


“We understand that parents may not want their kids around others; the schools are closed for a reason, so we understand the need to keep them at home, but we are open,” said Peters.


For those interested, Boys and Girls Clubs is providing meals. Kid’s Care is a program that provides lunches for members every day. Though Kid’s Care doesn’t offer breakfast, many club staff are purchasing breakfast meals for the members that are present.  


For now, Boys and Girls Clubs will continue to operate with the changes brought on by the outbreak while schools remain closed or if they are recommended to shut down. 


Their computer labs assist students that may have online instruction during school closures. And every room/space is utilized on rotation during this time to keep members in limited numbers as an extra precaution.


If you are interested in learning more, they advise you to contact your local branch to learn about the capacity limits, hours, and information on the safety of the facility.



Effects on Community Members


Eliana Antone, 15-years-old, is a sophomore attending Skyline Gila River. Antone initially welcomed the recommendations to stay home, but soon realized that the time off will have consequences. 


“Like any other teen, I was somewhat happy at first getting more time off, but I started thinking about it more and realized how much time is wasted due to this and how much work we would have to catch up on,” Antone said.


Her Activities as a member of the Akimel O’odham/ Pee-Posh Youth Council have also been impacted. “I’m on the youth council, I thought I’d be able to focus on that, but they have also put a lot of our stuff on hold,” Antone said.


Although only a sophomore, Antone is wondering how this may affect her timeline to graduate. She has time to make up any work, but she said her older peers who are seniors are understandably worried about graduation. 


Antone said she understands the safety measures needed and encourages others to follow recommendations. 


While high school students are dealing with the school closures, college students have also been adjusting to the coronavirus outbreak. Marlena Whitehair, District 3, is a freshman at Arizona State University, where she is majoring in Justice Studies and a minor in American Indian Studies. Whitehair also shared some insights into her experience to date.


“When I first learned about the school going on two weeks of online courses, it was very concerning and scary with how abrupt it happened,” said Whitehair. ASU students were informed about the switch to online courses during their spring break, March 9-13. But as of Monday, March 16, students were told that all classes would be online for the remainder of the spring semester.


“I was on spring break already, and when I learned of ASU closing, I just decided to leave all my belongings in the dorm.” Like her peers, she had planned for the break but only took some necessities. She only took home her laptop and a few textbooks.


Unfortunately, that’s not the case for some of Whitehair’s peers as many left campus and returned home with only the bare essentials for spring break. They left textbooks, school supplies, or laptops behind and don’t want to risk returning to campus.


“We just have to adjust, but online classes are more difficult because some courses are hard to teach online, especially for my ASL class [American Sign Language],” said Whitehair. 


While challenging, she acknowledges that students and staff alike are adapting with the change.


Despite lectures and assignments delivered and submitted online with minimal in-person communication, Whitehair and her peers are diligently supporting one another using various online and phone applications.


Thankfully with online courses means Whitehair can still occupy her time while at home and continue with her education. But even for Whitehair, she recognizes that “it’s a scary time because something like this has never happened before, but all we can do is adjust and keep moving forward.”