Coronavirus Updates

The latest news related to COVID-19 responses at tribal colleges and within Native communities: Colleges celebrate graduations online; number of cases on Navajo Nation exceed 6,000; colleges maintain online instruction though summer [Updated June 9]

Computer generated representation of COVID-19 under electron microscope. Felipe Esquivel Reed/Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s Note: Nothing has upended the landscape of higher education faster and more fully in recent years than the arrival and spread of the coronavirus. To help keep the tribal college community informed, Native Science Report will provide continually updated coverage of closures, cancellations, and responses in Indian Country.

Graduations go virtual

[Compiled by Katie Scarlett Brandt. Posted June 9]

When they embarked on their college careers, the class of 2020 never could have imagined they would graduate during a pandemic. None of the tribal college administrators envisioned that instead of preparing an auditorium for a celebration, they would be coordinating video messages to congratulate their students on this milestone.

Yet, adapting to hardships is nothing new to tribal colleges and tribal college students. Below are just some of the ways that tribal colleges are honoring their 2020 graduates.

Congratulations, Class of 2020!

Blackfeet Community College broadcast a socially distanced commencement ceremony on May 28 via Facebook Live.

Candeska Cikana Community College recorded video messages from college leaders and U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, followed by a list of graduates’ names and degrees.

Diné College has created a webpage dedicated to graduates, featuring video messages from college and community leaders, as well as photos of graduates and their degrees.

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College made this special video for graduates.

Fort Peck Community College (starts here, but then technical difficulties) announced graduates’ names via a Zoom session. They’re planning a summer ceremony coupled with a pow wow.

Institute of American Indian Arts has announced a virtual graduation ceremony featuring a commencement address from two-term United States Poet Laureate and IAIA alumnaJoy Harjo. The program will include a video montage announcing each graduate, as well as honor songs and footage of students, staff, and faculty.

Leech Lake celebration on Facebook live May 22 (not the graduation yet). Car caravan and gift bags.

Little Priest Tribal College posted on Facebook a photo and write up for each graduate, including the graduate’s future plans and advice to current students.

Navajo Technical University  Facebook Live graduation with congratulation videos from political leaders and community members. Slide show of graduates’ photos, quotes, and majors.

Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College created a congratulatory video from staff, faculty, and alumni and held a commencement on Facebook Live.

Salish Kootenai College held a virtual graduation on June 6, and listed each graduate on a dedicated webpage for the virtual ceremony.

Sisseton Wapheton College made a video of congrats and encouragement for graduates.

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) sent the following message to students from President Dr. Sherry Allison: “To recognize and celebrate your educational milestone, the 2020 commencement ceremony should have been held in April however, due to COVID-19, the heart breaking decision to cancel or postpone the ceremony was made. This has never happened in the history of SIPI. You have earned the right to be recognized and celebrated, so in recognition of your educational achievement, all Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 graduates are being gifted a laptop computer.”

United Tribes Technical College created a video of graduates’ names and messages of congratulations and encouragement.

If we’ve missed your college’s celebration in this list, please email to be added. Thank you!

Most instruction remains online, even as some tribal colleges cautiously reopen campuses

[Story updated May 27]

For most tribal and Native-serving colleges, remote instruction will continue through the initial weeks of summer term; in communities hardest hit, campuses will remain closed until fall, and possibly beyond.

On the Navajo Nation, which has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus, both Dine College and Navajo Technical University are reporting that all summer courses will be held online and all services–from registration to academic support–will be provided remotely.

Elsewhere, some colleges are preparing to open campuses for staff and student business. However, access to campuses will, at least initially, be limited and carefully controlled.

At Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation of South Dakota, in-person registration for summer courses will be allowed, although students will be required to wear face masks while on campus. Additionally, the university website is alerting students that “your temperature will be taken at the door and you will be required to answer a few questions.”

Bay Mills Community College, located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is also preparing to open “at limited capacity,” following the tribal council’s guidelines for phased reopening of the reservation. According to a statement posted on the college’s website, “designated staff will be on campus beginning June 1” and college staff “will be developing policies and protocols for the safety of all faculty, staff, students, and guests.”

Similarly, Chief Dull Knife College on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation of Montana is now allowing ” limited access” to the campus for students and the public. “Access to the college will be through a limited number entrances,” according to a college announcement. “All visitors will be ‘thermally’ evaluated and masks will be required while on campus.”

Chief Dull Knife’s summer courses, which begin June 8, are tentatively scheduled to be held in person, “but we may have to continue with distance delivery, depending on circumstances,” it cautioned.

Aside from the impact on summer classes, tribal college administrators are also concerned that closed or only partially opened campuses will limit opportunities for research, internships, and academic enrichment programs. At United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, ND, for example, instructor Jeremy Guinn reported that “Summer STEM programs have generally been cancelled until at least July 1.”

However, efforts are being made to transition at least some summer programs online, including a data science training and internship program at United Tribes and a six-week STEM-focused “bridge” program for high school students offered annually by Navajo Tech.

What happens after summer depends on the trajectory of the illness, public policy, and the evolving consensus of the higher education community. However, there is growing confidence–or, at least hope–that students can return to campus in the fall. That’s the plan at United Tribes, Guinn reported, where its annual fall pow-wow is also “moving forward as usual.”

Even Navajo Tech’s published fall course schedule is currently assuming that most classes will be face-to-face.

This optimism is in line with the rest of American higher education. In their public statements, many presidents of mainstream colleges and universities assert that they are “planning” for on-campus classes this fall. According the Chronicle of Higher Education, this list includes many state systems in and around Indian Country, including Montana State University, University of Arizona, and North Dakota State University.

However, reopened campuses will not necessarily mean a return to normal academic life. Many mainstream colleges and universities are indicating that they will modify their academic calendar through block scheduling or by moving start and end dates. Additionally, mainstream institutions are developing “hybrid” courses to reduce the number of students in on campus.

Confirmed cases pass 6,000 on Navajo Nation

[Story undated June 9]

The coronavirus continues to spread rapidly through the Navajo Nation. According to the Navajo Department of Health, there were 6,020 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of June 5, with 227 reported deaths, including two members of the tribal college community.

Among those who lost their lives was Valentina Blackhorse, 28, a former student of Diné College. An extended obituary in the New York Times drew the nation’s attention to Blackhorse, who was an assistant at the Dennehotso Chapter House and also a former Miss Diné College.

Additionally, Navajo Technical College is mourning the death of Frederick Thompson, who joined the faculty in 2011, teaching both mathematics and Navajo courses at NTU’s Chinle campus.

“The Navajo Nation has lost a valued educator,” said NTU Provost Colleen Bowman. “Our university will miss his wisdom, laughter and teachings. I will miss his committed passion for the classroom and his drive to make a difference.”

The number cases on the Navajo Nation exceeds totals in many states with much larger populations. By early May, the Nation had the second highest per capita rate of coronavirus cases in the country, second only to New York.

When the first cases appeared on the Navajo Nation in March, the tribal government issued an order requiring all residents to shelter in place, limiting outings to “essential activities.” The tribe also imposed an 8 pm to 5 am curfew, as well as 57-hour weekend-long curfews. As cases grew, doubled, and doubled again, the tribe established checkpoints and threatened curfew violators with 30 days in jail or a $1,000 fine.

Meanwhile, cases are also being reported on multiple reservations across the southwest and also the northern Plains, including Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota.

Many tribes responded quickly to the coronavirus threat, imposing travel restrictions and other policies that, in some cases, are more comprehensive than those mandated by their states. In South Dakota, the differing responses led to conflict between the Cheyenne River tribe and Governor Kristi Noem.

On May 8, the Republican governor gave the tribe 48 hours to dismantle checkpoints it had set up on a state highway passing through tribal land. Tribal Chairman Harold Frazier rejected the ultimatum, potentially setting the stage for litigation.

Solving the problem of limited internet access

[Story updated May 15]

The shift to online and “remote” instruction was a sudden and, often, chaotic transition for all of the nation’s colleges and universities. But for tribal colleges, the challenges were compounded by a longstanding digital divide in reservation communities.

Reflecting the context of poverty and rural isolation, many tribal college students do not have reliable internet access in their homes or communities. Likewise, students are less likely to own their own computers. With closed campuses, most no longer have access to computer labs and public wi-fi.

During the final weeks of the spring term, most colleges and their student made do by borrowing laptops, picking up wi fi signals from campus parking lots and, in some cases, sending assignments by mail. But as campus closures continue into summer and threaten to disrupt the fall term as well, colleges are looking for long term solutions.

One welcome response was a recently announced $250,000 grant to the American Indian College Fund from the Henry Luce Foundation, which will provide computers, computer equipment, and expand internet connectivity to tribal colleges.

Focusing on the needs of faculty who are making the transition to online learning, the grant will also provide support for “software, Learning Management System training, and assistance through an institutional online course delivery consultant,” according to a College Fund announcement.

“We deeply appreciate the support of the Henry Luce Foundation in their unique commitment to TCU faculty,” said Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund. “The foundation’s support is uplifting to TCU faculty and the students they educate.”

The grant will provide direct support to all 35 tribal colleges by the end of May, according to College Fund spokesperson Dina Horwadel.

Looking to the future, tribal college administrators emphasize that significant resources will be required to fully overcome the digital divide, requiring both federal and and private sector funding. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium is advocating that Congress support a “Rural TCU-IT Fund,” among other initiatives, to expand and upgrade internet access in Native communities.

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