7th Annual Governor’s Education Summit Held in Advance of In-Person Schooling

Christopher Lomahquahu

Gila River Indian News


Continuing to make education a priority despite challenges brought on by the pandemic, the Gila River Indian Community and its Tribal Education Summit hosted the 7th Annual Governors Education Summit on Feb. 12. 


The summit was accessible to Community members via Zoom, the Gila River Broadcasting Corporation’s Facebook page and the Community’s low-power TV station on channel 29.1. 


This year’s theme was “Fostering Wholeness, Reclaiming our Future,” which focused on the impact of COVID-19 on education in the Community. Administrators from each of the Community’s three public schools and St. Peter Indian Mission School presented on academic disruption and recovery, student emotional wellness and returning to school. 


“The difficult period of virtual learning has not been without its struggles,” said Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis. “It has been challenging in so many ways. We’ve seen true academic progress in the virtual world, feeling isolated from classmates and colleagues, worrying about falling behind and the anxiety about the health of your family and friends.”


Gov. Lewis said students have adapted to the virtual learning environment with the help of parents, guardians and teachers, who have reached out to them when they were in need of assistance. 


“You have become true partners with our teachers, to ensure our students had the in-home help to continue learning during the pandemic,” Gov. Lewis told viewers. 


Gov. Lewis emphasized that the Community made Internet access widely available to students by working with Gila River Telecommunications Inc. on installing wifi hot spots and installing more fiber optic cable to Community homes. He said education will continue to be a high priority as the Community assesses  how to provide more in-home learning resources to students.


Anthony Grey, TED Cultural Language Coordinator, and Lance Reyna, TED K-12 Manager, facilitated the “Academic Disruption and Recovery” portion of the agenda, which explored how Community schools are meeting the challenges of virtual learning. 


“This morning we are going to share with you a lot about the academic portion and some of the impact COVID-19 has had on our students,” said Grey. “We’ve been orally taught; it’s passed down from generation to generation, from family member to family member. To do it virtually has definitely been a challenge that is unique to the cultural teachers.”


Reyna said, “We definitely want to focus on the impacts of virtual learning. We all know that it has had some noticeably negative impacts from student learning to teacher delivery. We also want to highlight some of the positives that came from the pandemic — almost like blessings in disguise.”


“We have to be positive about what (we have) been faced with under the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Lt. Gov. Monica Antone. She remarked how resilient GRIC members have been in the face of this global crisis. 


Blackwater Community School, Sacaton Elementary/Middle School, Casa Blanca Community, St. Peter Indian Mission School and Gila Crossing Community all presented their challenges with virtual learning. Each mentioned “manipulatives,” or visual teaching aide’s teachers use in their virtual learning curriculum. 


Each of the school administrators also stressed reading proficiency could be improved through in-person learning.  


Lt. Gov. Antone remarked, “Part of my participation in today’s education summit is to listen and understand what we are faced with as a community and what resources I can support through my efforts.”


In addition to supporting students facing challenges with virtual learning, Antone added that their mental health also needs attention. “I am grateful for the topics presented today, which includes promoting a healthy lifestyle and mental well-being, which I am an advocate for the services around this important topic,” she said.


The “Student Emotional Wellness” phase of the conference discussed topics such as emotional and social learning, resources and encouraging students experiencing mental health challenges to talk about it.


During the conference, Education Case Management Coordinator Nadia Huff polled attendees in the Zoom chat on the state of emotional health among students. Results showed students are stressed by outside influences, miss being around their friends, and would like to learn new things. Some simply want to live a normal life. 


“We want to know how satisfied (you are) with your child’s school’s response to your families’ emotional needs,” said Huff. She encouraged the parents to think about how useful their child’s school resources have been and if they meet their needs, including the social and emotional needs of families. 


Towards the end of the summit, Gov. Lewis addressed the return to in-person learning. “As we plan to resume in-person learning, I know that you are excited to be back in the classroom. I also know that the return is also going to come with its own difficulties, some of which we can anticipate and some of which we can’t until you return to the classroom,” he said.


Gov. Lewis reassured viewers, stating that his administration is committed to working with all the schools to make sure there’s an opportunity to provide students the resources to catch up and not get left behind in their progress. 


Lt. Gov. Antone said, “The information presented during (this) summit is also meant to empower you, the students and parents, to be good learners in your education. You are the future and will be the ones to take over when it’s our time to step down, (and) we pass the baton over to you.”