Shondiin Silversmith Arizona Republic
(CNT) City News And Talk #arizona
TSALIE, Navajo Nation — In the spring, Gabriellyn Yazzie worked with students as a math tutor at Diné College. It was the type of job that required a lot of face-to-face interaction as students visited her throughout the semester for help.
“What I enjoyed the most was the one-on-one contact and teaching the students things that I have picked up over the years of being a student,” Yazzie said.
She often worked with one math instructor and she would have her own office space that allowed her to do her school work and teach students.
“It was reassuring that I could teach students something I am very passionate about,” she said.
Yazzie, 22, recalls tutoring a student face-to-face in March, just before the college let out for spring break, but she didn’t know that would be the last time this year she would be teaching in such close quarters.
When the coronavirus pandemic started to shut down the Navajo Nation in March, Diné College closed all its campuses and by the end of March had moved classes online for the remainder of the semester.
Students were transferred into an online learning environment as cases spread across the Navajo Nation, which, at one point during the pandemic, had the highest positive COVID-19 rate per capita in the US.
College officials monitored traffic on and off the campus, which was closed to community members, as were all the buildings, except for students and staff. Face masks were mandated on campus and social distancing rules put in place.
For the fall semester, the college opened a few of its classrooms, but kept most instruction online. To help students adjust, the college provided loaner laptops, wifi hotspots and offered a deal on tuition. As a result, enrollment remained near last year’s levels.
On the Tsalie campus, the layout for each building was adjusted so there is now one entrance and one exit. At each entrance are hand-washing stations and a health screener, who asks questions related to COVID-19, checks temperatures, checks in all visitors and provides them with a day pass for the campus.
The individual has to keep the pass on them at all times, and every employee must have their badge visible while on campus.
The campus library is closed but students have access to curbside services. The library also brought in a specialized ultraviolet machine that disinfects books.
Although most classes are still taught online, each classroom on campus is cleaned and sanitized according to CDC regulations and then closed and sealed with a sticker indicating the date and time it was cleaned. If the sticker seal is broken, that classroom can not be used.
Zero on-site COVID-19 cases
Since Diné College implemented its safety precautions in March, the campus “has not had any in house positive cases that were created on our site or that have spread on any of our campus sites,” said Velveena Davis, the Diné College incident commander.
“I think we’ve been fortunate enough because of how quickly we responded back in March on setting these standards and these protocols, getting the cooperation of both our employees as well as our students,” Davis added.
Dr. Charles M. Roessel, president of Diné College, said safety is a big priority on the campus, but the college still wants to offer the teachers and students an authentic experience.
“It’s safety within the context of learning, safety within the context of an educational experience, safety within the context of what’s going on in your life,” he said. “Even though safety is paramount, I think we still want our students to have a college experience.”
Diné College is the oldest tribal college in the U.S. It was also the first tribally operated college when it opened its doors in 1968.
The educational principles of the college are based on Sa’ah Naagháí Bik’eh Hózhóón, the Diné traditional living system, which places human life in harmony with the
natural world and universe, the website states.
The college operates six locations across the Navajo Nation, but the main campus is located in a remote area near the Chuska Mountains in Tsaile.
If it wasn’t for Diné College and a small health clinic, visitors might not realize they were passing through Tsaile. The community itself has a population of about 1,300 people, according to the 2010 census.
If students want to visit a larger community, they have to travel to Chinle, about a 30-minute drive away, or Window Rock, which is over an hour away.
“There is not a lot to offer students beyond the campus,” said Diné College Residential Director Sharon Begay.
The campus is in a remote area and large enough to incorporate CDC guidelines across campus. But for the 2020-21 school year, officials are keeping nearly all its courses online with only a few being taught in person.
Yazzie thought she’d be back on campus by fall, and she’d be able to tutor in person again, but that didn’t happen.
She was given a chance to do it online, but with no access to the internet or cell phone service from home, she knew it wouldn’t be logical.
“I couldn’t continue to tutor,” she said. So she started looking for other jobs.
That’s how she became a health screener for the college. Her only interaction with students now is asking them the series of questions related to COVID-19 and checking their temperature.
“It’s kind of weird,” she admitted, but she’s glad to still be working on campus.
Being a student during a pandemic
Yazzie has been enrolled at Diné College since the summer of 2016, and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in business administration. She chose the college because it’s about 15 miles from her home in Tsaile.
Pre-COVID, Yazzie said she was on campus often and interacted with instructors and her classmates on a daily basis, a routine she enjoyed. It made her college experience better because she always got the help she needed right away.
Now she feels frustrated and annoyed with how her semester is going so far. With all of her courses only offered online, Yazzie feels a disconnect in her studies.
She doesn’t live in an area where she has access to the internet or even cell phone service.
“I actually live in a no-service area and I do not have electricity at home to get Internet that the college was providing for students this semester,” Yazzie said.
That means as soon as she leaves campus after work, she doesn’t have cell phone service again until she returns the next day.
“I only get cell service every Monday through Friday, 8 to 5,” Yazzie said, and that is when she is working as a health screener on campus. In between her health screening duties, she’ll check on her assignments for class and do the required work.
She’s already had to drop two courses, which left her as a part-time student and threw her initial graduation timeline off by a year. She had to drop the courses due to the lack of communication coming from her instructors.
“I just couldn’t do it. I kept asking for help,” Yazzie said, but she felt she wasn’t getting enough and decided it was best to drop the courses.
Yazzie has taken online courses in the past, but she’s always still had access to her professors on campus. She’d be able to stop by their office and interact with them face-to-face.
Now, “it’s hard to get an email or communicate with an instructor,” Yazzie said, and that is the same in all her courses.
“It takes time for them to get back to me,” she said. She gets frustrated with the constant back and forth via email because sometimes she won’t get feedback on an assignment until the due date.
“I miss in-class teaching and being able to talk to the instructor in person,” she said because it allowed her to ask questions and break down the assignment piece by piece.
Yazzie said she understands the pandemic has changed a lot of things, and she knows firsthand the impact of the coronavirus. She lost her aunt to COVID-19 this summer, and her entire family is still trying to cope with that loss.
She and a few of her other family members also tested positive for the virus this summer. Yazzie said she lost her ability to taste anything, and it took over a week for it to come back.
“It’s been really hard,” Yazzie said, but she tries to keep herself busy at home and at school.
As a health screener, she constantly reminds people to wash their hands at the wash station in front of the building and to maintain a safe distance from each other.
Reopening for students and staff
Conversations about reopening the campus for the fall did happen, Roessel said, but after conducting a student survey and consulting with professionals, officials felt it was best to keep things remote because the Navajo Nation was still considered a hot spot.
The closest Indian Health Service (IHS) service area for the college is in Chinle, and that area has some of the highest positive COVID-19 cases reported, 2,480 cases as of Oct. 15.
“Our goal is to make sure that we are providing a safe, working, learning and teaching environment at Diné college,” Davis said
About 94% of the student population are taking online classes this fall, while 6% are in classes face to face on-site, she added.
The majority of classes offered face-to-face are science and lab courses, said Jazzmine Martinez, Dine College marketing assistant.
The only exception is for Diné Studies courses taught by Avery Denny, Martinez added, and he teaches four different classes once a week. Some of his courses include Navajo Oral History, Foundations of Navajo Culture, Navajo Philosophy and Diné Educational philosophy.
There are 24 face-to-face courses that have nine students with one instructor in each class. Each of the classrooms is set up with tables six feet apart and plexiglass on the tables as added protection, Martinez said.
The main campus in Tsaile has the most in-person students, with a count of 46, according to Diné College Provost Geraldine Garrity, but all campuses are open and have student enrollment.
There are a total of 233 first year Diné College students, with 147 first time freshman and 86 as first-time transfer students, Garrity added.
The dorms on campus are open, but there are currently only 26 students living on campus, with 20 families living in the family apartments, according to Begay.
“We did open for the fall semester, allowing for 76 students, one student per suite, which limited our students to eight per a dorm,” Begay said, but there weren’t that many students applying for residential life.
Before the pandemic, Begay said the dorms could house 251 students at maximum capacity, but would average anywhere from 160 to 180 students, usually with higher enrollment in the fall.
The 26 students who did come back to the dorm each have their own room and do not share a bathroom. The commons areas are closed and there are only about five students living in each dorm, according to Begay.
Since the pandemic started, Roessel said the college has been trying to find that balance between safety and providing a college education to its students.
He believes they’ve been able to achieve that, and it shows in their enrollment numbers this semester.
Enrollment is down just 5%, Roessel said, and he’s happy that even amid the pandemic, students didn’t put their future on hold.
For fall 2020, Diné College has 1,369 enrolled students, while in 2019, there were 1,463.
Some of the factors into the enrollment numbers could be a 50% reduction in tuition cost and the more than 350 online courses online, said George Joe, marketing and communications director. And for the first time, Diné College had TV ads placed in Phoenix and Albuquerque.
Different resource access
What made the Dine College’s response to the pandemic different from other higher education institutions in Arizona?
Resources, officials say.
Davis said the college doesn’t have access to the same type of resources larger universities do.
“I’m sure it’s probably the same for a lot of tribal colleges out there,” she said. “A lot of our employees, as well as our students, don’t have access to resources.”
Diné College is one of three tribal colleges in the state of Arizona. The other two are San Carlos Apache College and Tohono O’Odham Community College.
It is one of two higher learning institutions on the Navajo Nation, along with Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico.
Many on the Navajo Nation are not fortunate enough to live in an area with easy access to internet services, cell phone services or even essential businesses, Davis added.
That made the approach unique. Officials at Diné College had to figure out how to transition the entire operation online as well as provide the necessary resources for their students, staff and faculty.
The lack of resources played a key role in what the college had to do to keep its doors open, Davis said. She knew it would be a challenge because many students and faculty have never experienced courses online before.
“They had to quickly learn,” Davis said. When Diné College made the move online in March, it took 10 weeks to get all the services operating online. That included student advising, enrollment, tutoring and online learning.
“We’ve never done those things online before. A lot of our services were face to face,” Davis added.
Some of the resources they implemented include a laptop loaner program, wifi hot spots in the college parking lots and portable wifi hot spots for students who are able to connect to a network at home.
Roessel said people have to understand the way students and people access resources across the Navajo Nation is different from those who live off the nation.
“When we say our students have access to the Internet, it might mean that they’re driving 15 miles, hiking up on top of a mesa and then sitting there with a MiFi. And that to them is access,” he said. “Nobody in Phoenix would consider that access. They would consider that broadband, poverty.”
Free wifi access in parking lots has allowed other students in the surrounding area to go to school, Davis said.
The wifi access has not only been able to help Diné College students but also providing support to fellow students attending other schools. Davis said they’ve had students from NAU and ASU request for access to their wifi, and they’ve been happy to provide it.
“I think during this whole pandemic, it wasn’t just about having to help our own Dine College students, but our own people,” she said.
The laptop program was started March 18, and since then, the college has loaned out 200 laptops, according to Joe. Once students get a laptop, they can keep it for as long as they are registered.
A lot of technology upgrades were made using the $8.4 million funding the college got from the Navajo Nation via the federal CARES Act.
With the $8.4 million, Roessel said the college made a major investment in its technology grid, which includes upgrades to broadband capacity, Zoom studios and the laptop loaner program.
“Prior to this upgrade, as an analogy, if we only operated on a four-lane highway before this, we will now be operating on a 24-lane superhighway,” said Diné College Information Technology Director Joy Thompson in the colleges’ annual report.
The college also received $1.3 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s CARES Act funds and used a bulk of that at the beginning of the pandemic to give COVID-19 relief checks to its students. The checks ranged from $474 to $697.
The college also offered 50% off tuition for the 2020-21 school year. That means if a full-time student is taking 12 credit hours, the usual cost of $660 would be cut to $330.
Being a professor during a pandemic
Assistant Professor Jake Skeets has been with Diné College since 2018, and teaches English and writing courses for many of the incoming freshman.
Since the pandemic started, he’s shifted his teaching online. Skeets said it’s been a very unpredictable experience.
“We’re all trying to maintain a sense of normalcy,” he said.
As a professor, he’s trying to be as flexible as possible with his students in terms of “what they need or what they feel they may need” from their education.
“I feel like it’s been this ongoing negotiation,” he added.
He knows his students face unique challenges because they have limited access to resources in their area, whether it’s internet or just software access, like Microsoft Word.
That has been his biggest issue so far, but that’s where his flexibility comes in. He gives out assignments that can either be handwritten or typed.
“I’m sort of able to give them the freedom to make the choice,” Skeets said.
Another challenge is maintaining engagement with his students. This is the first time he is teaching courses fully online, and it is proving difficult to keep his students engaged.
“I often feel like I’m losing their attention in some way,” he added. His classes are held on Zoom and he only sees his students on a weekly basis, so it’s hard for him to gauge their understanding of the course.
This is why he’s flexible in his curriculum. He changed his approach on assignment due dates and quizzes to help his students.
“I’ve been trying to remind students that we are in a reality that’s very strange,” he said, and if they need time to step back from the course, they’re welcome to do that.
“As professors, we have a responsibility to ensure that our students are safe in all aspects,” he added.
Skeets said the Tsaile campus is remote but he still misses seeing students around, living their lives.
“It’s so interesting to see how students make a life here,” he added, and he looks forward to seeing the students return one day.
He’s proud of the steps that college took during the pandemic because it responded quickly and he feels that helped curb the number of COVID-19 cases.