Mark Sorensen and members of the Navajo-run nonprofit Protect Native Elders wheeled squeaky metal carts stacked high with boxes of digital tablets along the winding gray sidewalk toward the STAR School. On this humid August day, the STAR School, an acronym for “Service to All Relations,” is receiving a shipment of devices for their 130 students who are now spread out across the reservation, learning virtually.
As Sorensen pulls a cart, he passes his school’s sign greeting visitors in Navajo with ya’at’eeh. Here at this edge of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona, there is one feature of modern life that is notably absent from the gently sloping land: powerlines or even phone lines.
“From our very beginning, 20 years ago, we have been off-grid and solar-powered,” said Sorensen, gesturing to the cluster of blue-roofed red buildings and hundreds of solar panels.
When Sorensen co-founded the school in 2001 to serve Navajo students, there were no utilities — water, power or phone — for miles. Even now, 30 percent of families in the school lack running water at home and 60 percent have no internet connection, Sorensen said. That has made distance learning during the pandemic extraordinarily challenging for many in the Navajo Nation.
“Our challenge isn’t just to figure out how to teach through distance learning. Our challenge is how to help our parents by providing them with internet access, by providing them sometimes, actually, with the power to run those, because 30 percent of our parents actually don’t have reliable electricity either,” Sorensen said.
The pandemic has put a spotlight on the gaping disparity in access between remote, rural areas like Native American reservations and the country’s cities and suburbs.
The majority of schools supported by the federal Bureau of Indian Education were found to be “woefully inadequate to meet the demands of twenty-first century teaching and learning,” according to a 2018 report by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights titled “Broken Promises: Continuing Federal Funding Shortfall for Native Americans.”
And in 2018, 60,000 K-12 Native students attended federally supported schools “that do not have the broadband infrastructure required for digital learning in the classroom,” according to the latest available data from the nonprofit Education Superhighway.
Government agencies that track broadband internet access across the rest of the country have largely excluded Native American-serving schools and households from their statistics.
Charter schools like the STAR School created ways to power their classrooms, but faced new hurdles with the pandemic.
Laverna Nez’s daughter, Thea, who is in the third grade and has special needs, normally attends STAR School. But she has missed virtual classes because the family lacks utilities at home.
“We are without electricity, running water and no sanitation. And you just can’t get up and switch that light on,” Nez said. The family has a generator, but they must use it sparingly.
“Sometimes we have to tell them they need to go to bed early because we do not have enough power, as far as gas for our generator,” Nez said of her two children. “If it’s very windy, we have to put it away. So there, Thea would miss the opportunity to go to school that day.”
Thea’s grandmother, who lives a couple hundred yards away, has a solar panel system. So if the sun is out, Thea can power her newly provided school tablet and Wi-Fi hot spot at her grandmother’s. But when it’s cloudy, it’s lights out.
Autonomous planes and co-working spaces
Bleu Adams, who is Hidatsa, Mandan and Diné (Navajo), co-founded Protect Native Elders, which helped secure the donation of tablets for the STAR School. She has been working with XWing, an autonomous flight technology company, in hopes of establishing new and lasting distribution methods that will reach the vast and often cut-off Navajo Nation.
In late August, XWing flew its first autonomous cargo flight hundreds of miles from a small airport in Concord, California, to the Navajo Nation. (There was a safety pilot on board who only monitored the flight.)
For Adams and Protect Native Elders, which works to deliver donations of personal protective equipment and educational devices to the Navajo Nation, a huge barrier is the reservation’s remoteness and lack of physical addresses for those living there.
“The planes coming in have given us the ability to respond rapidly to a situation: crises within the nation,” Adams said. But the donations are a short-term solution. “On a long-term scale, really what we need is infrastructure to support entrepreneurs and open up the global market, because we don’t really have access to it.”
This, in part, was Adam’s inspiration for building IndigeHub, which she envisions as a network of physical co-working and learning spaces across Native American land. Her first location, on the Navajo Nation, is temporarily closed because of the coronavirus. But she’s working to open learning and business centers where students can have access to technology, internet and even classes.
“I think our broadband saturation here on the Navajo Nation is at 8 percent,” said Adams, whose process of building IndigeHub has been mired by red tape that is almost inherent with trying to open a business on the Navajo Nation.
Wi-Fi hot spots and keeping up with school
Two hundred miles away from the Navajo Nation, in the Gila River Indian Community, the community’s governor, Stephen Roe Lewis, is battling to improve connectivity for his 23,000 tribal members. When the coronavirus hit, Lewis issued an executive order to close schools, but that left many students without any means of getting online for distance learning.
“This has really shown, from a historical policy with the U.S. government, the lack of infrastructure in Indian Country. With Gila River, the digital divide is still very, very critical,” he said. “Even before the pandemic, there was this under-investment of federal money into tribes,” despite the federal government’s responsibility to fund these services.
The Brooks family in their home in the Gila River Indian Community.Vaughn Hillyard / NBC News
At the Casa Blanca Community School, the majority of families had no devices or internet access to enable distance learning.
At the home of Danny and Deanna Brooks, for example, there is no broadband internet. Until recently, Deanna Brooks used her cellphone as a Wi-Fi hot spot so that her four school-age daughters could log onto the internet for virtual learning.
“It’s on my shoulders that we have to push our kids to learn more, just because they’re raised in a reservation,” said Brooks, who pays an extra $100 each month for the Wi-Fi hot spot. “I just want them to get an education that’s really great for them,” she said tearfully.
Recently, a grant from Intel made it possible to provide 264 devices to the community, including laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots. But, even now, Casa Blanca teacher Angela Moreno estimates that only 60 percent of students are able to attend class.
“You’re wondering about how those kids are doing and what they’re doing,” Moreno said.
Gila River is also working on solutions to improve connectivity in their community. They have used funding from the CARES Act to install more wireless internet, and the tribal telecommunications company is developing vehicles that can function as mobile hot spots when parked near schools and community centers.
On the Navajo Nation, Sorensen is powering ahead with sustainable energy and on the lookout for more direct means of getting lasting resources into the community.
“We want self-empowerment,” Sorensen said. “With all of the infrastructure challenges that we have, we have to be extremely innovative to be able to bridge that digital divide and not fall back behind everyone else even more.”