DEWAR, Okla. — Parents and students across the country are dealing with the learning challenges of virtual classrooms.
Native American tribes in Oklahoma used coronavirus relief dollars to bridge the digital divide by ensuring native students have access to computers and the internet.
"The problem that we ran across, that we found was people needed a device more than anything. That was probably our biggest challenge to be able to make sure that every kid had access," said Todd Been with Dewar Public Schools.
It's the most significant decision school districts tackled as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
"Seriously, I have not maybe slept three or four full nights since March," said Been.
Should schools open or go virtual?
"Our first day of professional development, we had six teachers on their very first day of a 14-day quarantine. I basically got the call the night before, and I began to tell my principals, 'how are we going to have school with a fifth of our staff already gone?'" said Been.
Districts, large and small, had to choose and weigh the resources it had for students and faculty.
In Dewar, in Okmulgee County, the school superintendent needed a solution for distance learning. The district didn't have enough school-issued laptops, and some of its 450 students didn't have reliable internet.
"It was going to make my decision much, much more difficult because I was trying to figure out how are we going to make this work? When I got that email. It was like almost immediately--ok, we can do this now," Been said.
An email came from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, which had CARES act funds from the federal government.
Tribes like Muscogee (Creek) Nation chose to use some of that money to provide grants to enrolled citizens to help them purchase laptops and gain better access to Wi-Fi for virtual learning.
"My thoughts were it's very important because there's a lot of students that will have to be at home utilizing the virtual tools, so I felt like it was a great opportunity for the tribe to step in and to assist those students with the learning tools that they need," said Courtney Josie, Muscogee (Creek) Nation manager employment and training program.
In eastern Oklahoma, several tribes joined the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, including Choctaw and Cherokee, in offering virtual learning grants to its citizens.
Dewar Public Schools identified 150 students eligible for the grant.
"It was a good feeling because then I had a laptop I could use. Like my own personal, so I wouldn't have to worry about like if something happened to it," said Brailee England, a junior at Dewar High School.
The superintendent's daughter, Talyn Been, benefitted from the money.
"Honestly like kind of stressful. I was really nervous about not getting to school and then, and then we had to postpone it for so long, and like everything with virtual learning is just very stressful and overwhelming," Brailee said.
Even though Dewar returned to the classroom in October, she can still work remotely when needed.
"It honestly just took one thing off--because I didn't have a computer, so that was one thing I didn't have to worry about was buying that I was actually able to get one that I could use a long time after high school too," she said.
Students are adapting to all of the challenges brought on by the pandemic.
"(It's) pretty hectic actually. I'm not used to it. I was used to coming to school, going to normal classes. Now, I have to wear a mask and stuff. It's just all crazy," said Thomas Brownfield, a junior at Dewar High School.
"It's been good working at your own pace because it's like--there's been times I want to go a little bit faster or slower, so having the ability to work at your own pace has been pretty nice," said Marshall Been, a junior at Dewar High School.
It's not a typical school year by any means, but tribes and school officials are doing what they can to keep kids and teachers safe while learning, no matter where they live.
"At the end of the day, we're all parents, and we all see it at home too that all these kids are actually struggling virtually with the new technology and this big cultural shift that we're facing," said Josie.
"For me, being a Muscogee (Creek) [Nation] citizen, it was one of the best expenditures that I've seen personally go to work face-to-face how it helped a kid," said Todd Been.
How is the CARES act funding working for you? If you're an enrolled member of a native tribe in our area, email us at NativeAmericaRecovery@KJRH.com.
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