Did failure to close a school expose more people to the coronavirus in Navajo communities?
The school buses were a giveaway.
School wasn't supposed to be in session on March 16, the day Arizona’s statewide shutdown of public schools went into effect. But that morning, residents in the tiny Navajo community of Hardrock spotted buses running their usual routes. They were headed to Rocky Ridge Boarding School.
The school didn’t have to comply with Arizona’s decision. It’s operated by the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Education, an overlooked and often criticized agency with schools scattered across Indian Country. Fears of COVID-19 prompted BIE to close many of its schools. But Rocky Ridge held one more day of school, an employee confirmed, and some school employees continued meeting for at least two more days.
By the time the school closed, a disaster was already underway.
Over the next two weeks, as the coronavirus rampaged through the Navajo Nation, at least six people inside Rocky Ridge — four employees and two students — fell ill. Many experienced symptoms similar to those of to COVID-19. At least one is hospitalized. Their family members have also fallen ill. And one woman, a 55-year-old longtime employee, died, though it's unclear if her death was caused by the virus.
As news and gossip about the virus escalated across the community, there have been few official information sources, for the public or the press. Employees and residents who knew about the illnesses that followed the school closing spoke only anonymously, fearing for their jobs, their families, their reputations.
Five people contacted by The Arizona Republic said they knew somebody at Rocky Ridge who had become sick. Three were aware of multiple sick people.
The outbreak was first reported by the Navajo Times.
The Navajo Nation has become a hot spot for the virus, which has preyed on the tribe’s elderly population. Its spread has been especially deadly in the reservation’s small, remote communities, where residents are all but cut off from health care facilities and other essential services.
As of Saturday evening, the tribe had confirmed 321 cases of the novel coronavirus. Thirteen people have died after contracting the virus.
Though some people from Rocky Ridge had been sick for more than a week, acting principal Timothy Clashin appears not to have announced that the virus had reached the school until March 27.
In a Facebook post that day, he also told the community one employee had died.
Clashin wrote that Rocky Ridge had already scheduled a tentative date to reopen.
That post has since been deleted. In its place are messages urging people to stay home.
Every BIE school is now closed until further notice. But the Bureau still has not publicly acknowledged the Rocky Ridge outbreak on its website or any of its social media accounts.
Employees were warned that they were not authorized to speak publicly, according to instructions sent to school staff via text messages. In those texts, which were reviewed by The Republic, the school also announced an internal investigation into how news of the infections leaked to the public.
BIE also has not publicly mentioned the death of an employee at Tuba City Boarding School. An employee with preexisting health problems tested positive for COVID-19, a relative confirmed. He died Thursday.
And at nearby Kaibeto Boarding School, a school official says, the number of suspected cases has reached five.
"They're trying to keep it under wraps," school board president Bahozhoi Kinsel said.
A silent agency
The Bureau's secrecy about coronavirus is an extension of the way it has always operated. BIE has long been reluctant to release information about its schools or the 46,000 students enrolled in them. As recently as last year, the agency barred employees at a school in Oregon from speaking even to members of Congress, who were investigating a rash of student deaths.
BIE spokesperson Genevieve Giaccardo declined to comment for this story and did not answer detailed questions about the Bureau's response to the pandemic. She would not say how many of its schools have discovered cases of coronavirus, citing an ongoing investigation.
“It’s not just Rocky Ridge Boarding School. It’s BIE,” said a community member with family at the school. The person asked to remain anonymous to protect their family’s privacy. “There’s things wrong with BIE schools. And there’s really no leadership, whoever’s making these decisions.”
Without word from Washington, rumors and fear have swept through tribal communities. In Kaibeto, which is halfway between Tuba City and Page, the advisory school board Kinsel leads — an elected group that wields almost no power over its school — accused BIE of endangering its staff and students. Two school employees there recently tested positive for COVID-19, Kinsel said, and three more are quarantined and awaiting test results.
This week, the board sent a terse letter to BIE Director Tony Dearman, demanding the school remain closed for the rest of the year. The letter also criticized the school's decision to keep serving meals to students, which the board said has continued even after employees became ill.
"We told them what to do, and they didn't listen," Kinsel said Friday. "Now look what's happening."
BIE has since closed Kaibeto until further notice, according to a follow-up letter Kinsel sent on Friday. Her letter indicated that all Bureau-operated schools would close, though BIE has not confirmed that decision. The Navajo Board of Education announced last week that all schools on the Nation should remain closed for the rest of the year.
At Rocky Ridge
Rocky Ridge is a small school, with just over 100 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. One former student described it as a refuge from a rural community struggling through generations of trauma, a place whose dormitory offered stable housing and hot meals to kids who might otherwise go hungry.
But the virus appears to have turned Rocky Ridge into a public health threat.
BIE alerted schools to the coming contagion on March 4, when there were fewer than 100 confirmed cases in the United States. It offered basic hygiene suggestions and pledged to monitor the situation.
Ten days later, on a Saturday, schools received more news from Washington. The tone was more urgent. In a letter, Dearman warned that the virus “may constitute an immediate hazard to health and safety.” Some schools, including Kaibeto and nearby Tuba City Boarding School, were told they must close immediately.
It’s unclear whether Rocky Ridge received a similar letter, or was told that it must close. Clashin, the principal, did not respond to phone calls or emails from The Republic.
But on that Monday, when other BIE-operated schools shut down, Rocky Ridge held one more day of school.
“Everyone was worried about the sickness going around,” said the community resident with family at the school. The resident, who did not want to be identified, received a text from a family member who showed up as usual, along with students. The text said that at least one employee appeared to be sick.
The following day, Rocky Ridge fell in line. The school closed for the rest of the week. But an employee said the staff was still required to come to work. Some essential personnel were called into a group meeting on March 18 — four days after BIE started closing schools.
Among those who attended the meeting, according to text messages and the wife of an employee who attended, was a maintenance worker believed to have attended a now-infamous church rally in the nearby community of Chilchinbeto. That rally has been identified by the Navajo Times as the likely source of the outbreak on Navajo Nation.
According to text messages shared with The Republic, employees were later informed via text message that the maintenance worker had tested positive for COVID-19.
In the days that followed, an unexplained illness spread through the community. Another employee started feeling symptoms, along with her children, but they could not access a coronavirus test. So did yet another employee, who attended the March 18 meeting. He is now hospitalized in Phoenix, his wife said, and breathing through a ventilator.
And then, on March 27, an employee died.
Facebook tributes to a 55-year-old education technician, whose LinkedIn page shows three decades of service at Rocky Ridge, describe a sudden decline. It is unclear what caused her death, or if she had contracted the virus.
But the death seemed to have prompted the school to announce that it had confirmed at least one case of coronavirus.
“The school was infected with the COVID19 virus and was closed by the Navajo BIE District Office,” the school announced in a Facebook post attributed to Clashin. The school canceled plans to distribute meals and packets of homework, and urged people to stay in their homes.
“You will be informed when students can return to school safely.”
Two days later, Rocky Ridge employees received another text. The school had launched an official investigation, but it wasn’t to trace the virus or identify its source.
It wanted to know who had talked to the newspaper.