ST. MICHAELS, Ariz. (AP) — A small grade school on the outskirts of the Navajo Nation capital is ready for students to return.
Staff at Hunters Point Boarding School in St. Michaels have repainted the building, upgraded the washer and dryer in the dorms, installed a security gate, placed plexiglass between beds and installed hand-washing stations.
On Friday, they showed it off and talked about what else they can use as First Lady Jill Biden wrapped up a three-day tour of the U.S. Southwest. High on the list is internet service and a new building to replace the one built in the 1960s.
Biden greeted several students and staff at the school, saying she felt right at home.
The first lady teaches English and writing at Northern Virginia Community College and, like the staff at Hunters Point, would like to resume in-person classes this fall. Biden said she feels for students who have struggled during the pandemic with losing loved ones, attending classes via Zoom, and finding a sense of community while away from their classmates. She encouraged them to keep journals.
“If you could write a journal and just look at this time. Don’t forget it and think about what did you learn about yourselves. Were you stronger than you thought? … Maybe it was harder than you thought? Did you change in some way? Did you find that you were kinder or did you find that maybe you felt sad so many days?”
She urged them to write down those thoughts so that when they have their own families, they can share details of the pandemic.
Biden met with the students in the common room of the school’s dormitory, which has a mural of crops planted in rows and the geographic feature Hunters Point. None of the students attends the school.
Inside the school gym on a banner that welcomed her, Biden wrote: “Thank you. Much love.”
Navajo Nation First Lady Phefelia Nez told the students dressed in traditional moccasins, crushed velvet shirts and dresses with Navajo designs: “This is going to be one of those days you remember for the rest of your lives.”
Earlier Friday, as the motorcade traveled through the Navajo Nation, residents waved from their front porches and roadside hay stands. Some recorded the parade of vehicles with flashing lights.
At the entrance to the Hunters Point School, signs expressed gratitude for federal virus relief funding that the tribe has received and money still yet to be distributed.
Biden was also scheduled to visit a COVID-19 vaccination site Friday.
She spent the first day of her trip to the Navajo Nation on Thursday listening to female tribal leaders whom she referred to as her “sister warriors” about the broader needs on the country’s largest Native American reservations.
The trip is Biden’s third to the vast reservation — which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and a corner of Utah — and her inaugural visit as first lady. She vowed to work with the Navajo Nation and all tribal nations, in a recognition of their inherent sovereignty and political relationship with the United States.
Genevieve Jackson, who sits on the school board in St. Michaels, said on windy days, the internet is “questionable” and has caused delays for standardized, online testing. Some of the school’s equipment dates back more than a half-century, she said.
“We are a very poor nation and (Joe Biden) recognizes that we’re an impoverished nation,” she said. “We’re rich in culture and our teachings, but we need to catch up to the modern day of 2021. We need to be at par with all of the other private schools. We feel like we’ve been left out.”
Hunters Point falls under the U.S. Bureau of Education, which oversees more than 180 schools in nearly two dozen states but directly operates less than one-third of them. Hunters Point is among those run by tribes or tribal organizations under contract with the federal government.
The schools have a tainted 19th century legacy from when Native American children were taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools. They are among the nation’s lowest performing, and have struggled with issues such as shoddy facilities.
Few people have been on the Hunters Point campus in the past year amid the pandemic.
Across the Navajo Nation, students have been learning remotely, some given flash drives with school work or paper packets if they have no access to computers. School buses have become Wi-Fi hotspots and delivered food to students’ homes or at a central location when they couldn’t navigate dirt roads that turn into a muddy, rutted mess when it rains or snows.
Virgilynn Denzpi, an educator at a school in the Window Rock area, was standing alongside the road Thursday hoping to get a glimpse of Jill Biden. She’s hopeful Biden will understand the challenges teachers on the reservation have encountered during the pandemic.
“We’ve been so stressed out and overworked,” Denzpi said. “It’s like being a frontline worker, we’re the unsung heroes. I just wish the kids were back in the classrooms.”
In a normal year, students at Hunters Point stay in the dorms during the week and are bussed home on the weekends. Many come from single-parent families who struggle financially, Jackson said.
The school that serves kindergarten to fifth grade has used money from a federal virus relief package to provide laptops for students, and equipment for teachers to instruct remotely.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority estimates that expanding broadband across the 27,000-square mile (70,000 square-kilometer) reservation would cost more than $220 million. Tribal lawmakers like Daniel Tso said they realize they need to be more systematic in how to allocate the next round of federal virus relief funding.
Jackson said she’s hopeful students at Hunters Point can return in the fall with the same opportunities as students in bigger cities.
“We are producing tomorrow’s leaders, so we all share that dream and hope,” she said.