Bureau of Indian Education: Open schools or else

The Bureau of Indian Education’s plans to reopen its schools for in-person instruction is irresponsible, according to many Native parents and tribal leaders across Indian Country.

Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, sent a letter to tribal leaders this month indicating that Bureau of Indian Education-operated schools will open Sept. 16 with in-person instruction. Sweeney wrote: “To the maximum extent possible, BIE (operated) schools will operate brick and mortar schools.”

According to its website, the Bureau of Indian Education oversees a total of 187 schools. Of those, 132 are tribally controlled, operating under the direction of individual tribes. Fifty-five are operated by the bureau. Although bureau leaders maintain they actively include input from tribal consultation and stakeholder meetings and surveys in crafting policies for both tribally controlled and bureau-operated schools, many tribal leaders disagree.

“These “Dear tribal leader” letters sent out by the BIE don’t acknowledge the authority of tribal nations and our elected officials,” says Daniel Tso, Navajo Nation council delegate and chairman of Navajo Nation Health, Education and Human Services Committee.

Neither the Bureau of Indian Education nor the Bureau of Indian Affairs responded to emails from Indian Country Today seeking comment about schools reopening.

Sweeney wrote: “The guidance in this letter specifically pertains to bureau-operated schools. However, BIE recommends tribally controlled schools take the recommendation included as guidance to inform their general operations and to prepare each learning environment for the 2020-2021 school year.”

Nearly half of the Navajo Nation’s 65 Bureau of Indian Education schools are operated directly by the bureau. Only about a third of all BIE-funded schools are operated by the agency. Most are tribally-controlled schools.

During a meeting Wednesday, committee members created a resolution recommending all reservation schools provide virtual or online learning options.

“I realize that Mr. Dearman has to toe the line according to the orders of the Trump administration, but the BIE people in Washington, D.C., don’t know the lay of the land out here,” Tso says.

Tony Dearman of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is the director of the Bureau of Indian Education. In an email response to Indian Country Today, he referred questions about school openings to the Bureau of Indian Affairs office of public affairs. That office has not responded to emails from Indian Country Today.

President Donald Trump is pushing for public schools to open with in-person instruction.

Parents on the Navajo reservation are overwhelmingly opposed to sending their children back to in-person school instruction, according to Tso

“Our dear children need to be protected; On a per-capita basis, we are still experiencing high rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths (on the Navajo reservation),” Tso says.

The Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, has been one of the worst hotspots during the pandemic.

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