Safety First

Settling in for the long haul, tribal colleges are rearranging academic calendars, loaning laptops, installing Plexiglas, offering tuition discounts, and hosting virtual social events as Covid-19 maintains its grip on reservations nationwide.

By Katie Scarlett Brandt

The Institute of American Arts Museum in Santa Fe. Though the museum is open, the college suspended in-person classes. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Sarah Stierch, CC by 2.0.

Mirroring trends in higher education nationwide, the pandemic has put enormous strains on the nation’s three dozen tribal colleges. Nine months after the first campus closures, most instruction remains either entirely or partially online. Meanwhile, over 75 percent of the colleges experienced a significant decline in new student enrollment during the fall term, according to a survey conducted by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

But the pandemic is also providing some unanticipated opportunities. In a more hopeful trend, Tohono O’odham Community College in Arizona saw enrollment grow by nearly 150 percent. Like most tribal colleges, Tohono O’odham was founded to serve students who live within commuting distance of the college. But when instruction moved online, geographic barriers were erased. According to president Paul Robertson, in a story reported by the Christian Science Monitor, the small college now enrolls students from 45 tribes, including those living in Phoenix and other distant cities.

In this ever-shifting landscape, Native Science Report looked at how a sampling of the 36 tribal colleges are responding to challenges and planning for spring semester. As Covid-19 continues to surge, we focus on evolving approaches to instruction, student services, internet access, and tuition relief. Reports are drawn primarily from college websites, college social media posts, and reporting in national and regional newspapers.

Diné College closed down the majority of its departments in March, and most of the more than 200 employees and 1,257 students continue to meet virtually. The school provided $673,000 in direct relief aid to students, $4.6 million in institutional support costs, and $3.5 million in facility ventilation updates and outdoor learning spaces.

At Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, most classes meet virtually. The campus remains open for services such as tutoring, library (limited hours), and for pre-arranged meetings with faculty. Visitors must complete a screening form prior before entering campus and may have to show a “green-light email” at the screening station. Because the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) lists 18-35-year-olds as having the fastest growing number of cases, the college is encouraging everyone to get a free Covid-19 test at community-based testing sites or via a free home saliva test from the MDH. The college is also encouraging everyone to download Minnesota’s free Covid-19 exposure app.

Fort Peck Community College committed to hybrid classes when the 2020/21 academic year started. Some courses are entirely remote, and some meet in person as well. The college also hosts virtual talking circles on Fridays open to all students.

The Institute of American Indian Arts ended in-person classes in mid-November due to a surge in Covid-19 cases in New Mexico. However, some students continue to live on campus and require access to facilities, WiFi, and other services. Fall semester graduates only can schedule access to studios and specialized equipment with faculty members. The school is hosting a virtual holiday market and virtual film screenings and open houses.

Leech Lake Tribal College announced in July that the school’s fall semester would primarily take place online, with a few exceptions for hybrid and in-person classes. The school loaned out laptops and hotspots on a first come, first serve basis.

Little Priest Tribal College announced in-person, hybrid, online, and hyflex courses for the Spring 2021 semester. In the hyflex classes, students can attend classes online in real time or in person depending on whether they feel ill or uncomfortable. Students in the classroom must wear face masks. Each desk will also have a sneeze guard. The school made this announcement after conducting two surveys of students about their preferred learning methods.

Navajo Technical University held 51 percent of its 470 courses exclusively online during fall semester. The remainder were either in-person or independent study. Because Navajo Nation is experiencing a rise in Covid-19 cases, surpassing 11,800 cases and 580 deaths as of early November, the university will delay its spring semester by a week. By starting instruction on January 25 instead of January 19, students will forgo spring break, but administrators hope to limit exposure to the virus during winter. Additionally, the school is extending the tuition assistance program.

Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College announced in late November that the school will continue virtual courses — with the exception of some Career and Technical Education courses — through the end of the spring semester in May 2021. North Dakota currently leads the U.S. in Covid-19 cases per capita.

Salish Kootenai College has used federal Covid-19 funds to extend its 50 percent tuition waiver for the entire 2020/2021 academic year. Administrators hope this will relive financial pressure on current and incoming students.

Sisseton Wapheton College closed access to the general public on November 16 due to rising Covid-19 cases on the Lake Traverse Reservation. Fall semester courses are meeting via Zoom, with the exception of Building Trades and Culinary Arts.

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) campus remains closed, and courses through spring trimester will continue online, with the limited exception of the Vision Care and Natural Resources programs. The school is waiving all student fees for the Spring trimester, and students who request a laptop or hotspot for online classes will receive them. In coordination with Indian Health Service, the school is also offering Covid-19 testing on select Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

United Tribes Technical College is holding classes virtually. The school provides refurbished computers to students for free upon request and made new laptops available for purchase at the bookstore. Former students who re-enroll in the spring 2021 semester can also apply for debt forgiveness.

If you’d like your school’s update included in this list, please to be added. Thank you!

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