Unlike their students, Piñon High School’s teachers report to work each day, careful to wear masks and social distance. Alone in his classroom, 11th-grade English teacher Robert LaBarge delivers lectures into a computer.
“The kids always tease me for laughing at my own jokes,” he said, smiling. “But there’s no one in class! Who’s supposed to laugh at my jokes?”
In his room, chairs are stacked in a corner and books sit, unused, on shelves. LaBarge recently started sending dictionaries to students without Wi-Fi to help them with their vocabulary work.
“It’s this very strange thing,” he said, “going by these buildings and these playgrounds and these basketball courts, and there’s no one out there. It just feels weird.”
Like many of his colleagues, LaBarge makes himself available to his students however he can. He gets phone calls, texts, emails, Facebook messages, Instagram DMs. Sometimes, he said, they want to talk about schoolwork; other times, they express their feelings about living in a pandemic.
One of his students is the grandson of the high school’s teaching assistant, who died of COVID-19. She worked with kids with severe developmental disabilities and was “really funny,” LaBarge recalled, once people got to know her.
“It takes someone with a very big heart to do that kind of work,” he said.
After she died, LaBarge noticed a palpable change in her grandson.
“He’s a kid who’s always pretty upbeat and kind of sarcastic, and he’s got an outgoing personality,” he said. “So immediately you just sort of notice, that’s kind of gone. He’s feeling some pain.”
In such a small and tight-knit community as Piñon, he said, every loss has ripple effects.
“It made it more real and surreal,” he said of the deaths of his co-workers. “It’s noticeable that there are two people missing.”
As teachers inside take their lunches alone at their desks, vehicles full of families pull up to a tent at the back of the school. Nearly every driver wears a mask and holds up fingers through their windows, signaling how many meals they need. During the pandemic, the school has been putting together take-home breakfasts and lunches for district families.
Angelica Sandoval, who has an eighth-grade son at home alone, helps hand out trays of Salisbury steak, pineapple and milk. The previous day, she said, they gave out more than 100 meals.
Unable to be with her son during the day, she can only hope he’s getting his homework done.
Life on the reservation during COVID-19, she said, is “stressful, depressing, scary.”
In May, research published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University predicted that springtime school shutdowns would result in children returning for the fall semester with 63% to 68% of the typical gains in reading and 37% to 50% in math.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers noted that setbacks would likely be greater for children of color and those who live in poverty – especially those without reliable internet.
In Piñon, teachers and administrators didn’t need a research paper to tell them that.
Principal Nelson mentioned one student in particular, who lost his only surviving parent to the virus and moved to Phoenix to work 10-hour days in construction while keeping up with online coursework. Feeling overwhelmed, he eventually returned to Piñon to live with extended family.
He isn’t the only one in that type of situation, said Ostgaard, the superintendent.
“We have a few (students) that for different reasons, I guess you would almost consider homeless at this point,” he said. “They’re kind of bouncing from relative to relative, and they’re in different places.”
Gustafson, the science teacher, worries most about those students who can’t get connected – noting that many, while still technically enrolled, have not been turning in schoolwork.
The divide between the kids with and without internet is “de facto segregation,” he said.
“The students that don’t have the net, and consequently don’t have immediate feedback … on material or whatever else, they aren’t necessarily getting everything that students with the net are getting.”
Still, for those they can reach, the school’s online efforts have been so successful that the Arizona State Board of Education granted the district approval to use their approaches to virtual learning to open a fully online high school available to any Arizona student – the Piñon Eagles Online Academy.
“What we’ve tried to do here at Piñon High is try to take a negative and turn it into a positive,” Nelson said.
And whenever the Piñon schools do reopen their doors, he added, it will be optional for students to return.
Despite all that they’re facing, Piñon officials are still doing what they can to inspire their students about the future. Gustafson, a former radiological engineer who worked at nuclear power plants, spoke recently via Zoom to a group of ROTC students about his career.
It’s motivation meant to remind them that their dreams still can be realized. Or, as Gustafson put it: “Get me to the university, get me to the city and something will happen.”
He knows his students are dealing with a lot. One, he said, had three close family members die from COVID-19 – all within a month of each other.
Still, Gustafson has faith in their resilience.
“There are students that have the dream. By golly, they do,” he said. “They are making it work, regardless. They’re doing what they can.”