By ANTHONY J. WALLACE\/Cronkite News undefined\r\n\r\nPINON, Arizona (AP) \u2014 One student runs 85 feet up a hill every morning, just to get a cellphone signal so he can call in his attendance. Another moved to Phoenix by himself, after his only parent died of COVID-19, to work construction while going to school online.\r\n\r\nThen there's the high school senior who spends six hours most days doing homework in a car next to a school bus turned Wi-Fi hotspot \u2013 the only way some kids on the Navajo Nation can get assignments to their teachers.\r\n\r\nThese kids share a dream: to graduate high school, find a way to go to college, get a degree, land a dream job \u2013 get out of their small town, succeed and soar.\r\n\r\nEven in the best of times, that dream is harder for Native American students to attain. And now COVID-19 has brought one of the greatest challenges yet to these young people.\r\n\r\nFor them, it's about so much more than being separated from friends or having to figure out how to use Zoom. All that isolation and upheaval has been accompanied by death and great loss.\r\n\r\nAcross the Navajo reservation, victims of COVD-19 include parents and grandparents, sole guardians and providers, mentors and teachers. Without them, some students have lost their way or, quite literally, fallen off the map.\r\n\r\nSaid one district superintendent: "We have some kids that we just don't know where they are."\r\n\r\n___\r\n\r\nA SCHOOL DISTRICT FIGHTS TO SURVIVE\r\n\r\nThe drive from Flagstaff northeast to Pi\u00f1on takes more than two hours over a two-lane highway and dirt road. Just a few hundred families live in this community, in modest houses scattered across hills roamed by horses and dotted with brush.\r\n\r\nA single campus accommodates the elementary, middle and high schools.\r\n\r\nHere, on a reservation the size of West Virginia, the COVID-19 death rate has been higher than that of any U.S. state. So even as some schools reopened for in-person learning this fall, those on the Navajo reservation did not.\r\n\r\nWithout the 300 students who normally fill its cafeteria, crowd its lockers and seek help in its counseling offices, Pi\u00f1on High's cavernous hallways are unnaturally quiet. Do-not-disturb signs hang on classroom doors, indicating Zoom sessions in progress.\r\n\r\nInside one empty room, a carpentry teacher plays heavy metal music and bobs his head at his desk. In another, science teacher James Gustafson's lab tables are covered with surplus VHS videos that he's sorting through for hidden gems.\r\n\r\n"'Citizen Kane!'" he says. "That makes it all worth it."\r\n\r\nOn Gustafson's desk are printed progress reports adhered to colorful construction paper. They identify students anonymously by a number, tracking their scores on weekly quizzes. He's preparing to hang them in the halls for other teachers to see.\r\n\r\nThe grades are far worse than what he saw last year.\r\n\r\n"These are ungodly low compared to how they should be," he said, "because I've given the students who've turned nothing in \u2013 and there's a lot of them \u2013 I've given the students who've turned nothing in a zero."\r\n\r\nEven before the pandemic, Native youth had the highest dropout rates in the U.S., leaving school at more than twice the rate of white children, according to federal statistics.\r\n\r\nLikewise, the graduation rate for American Indian and Alaska Native children is the lowest in the country \u2013 72%, compared with a national average of 85%.\r\n\r\n"Distressing" is how a report from the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators described the state of education for K-12 schools for Native students. And the pandemic has only served to further spotlight disparities.\r\n\r\nMore than 600 of the Navajo reservation's 173,000 residents have died from COVID-19. Compare that rate of 347 for every 100,000 people to Maricopa County \u2013 Arizona's largest \u2013 where the death rate is 86 per 100,000 people.\r\n\r\nThe risk of returning to class is greater on the reservation, and the price of keeping schools closed is steeper.\r\n\r\nPi\u00f1on High School Principal Timothy Nelson said COVID-19 has claimed at least six parents and two district staff members \u2013 a front office worker and a teaching assistant.\r\n\r\n"Some people may think it's a joke and it's not a big deal," Nelson said of the disease. "But when you're living with it and you see it, it's not so much a joke anymore."\r\n\r\nDarrick Franklin, an education program manager with the Department of Din\u00e9 Education, spent months working with officials in New Mexico and Arizona to keep schools on the reservation closed as others around them reopened or went to hybrid learning.\r\n\r\nThe focus for Franklin's department, he said, is to "protect the Navajo people" \u2013 a sentiment shared across Navajo leadership. In August, President Jonathan Nez issued a statement urging schools to remain virtual until at least 2021 to protect the safety of students, teachers and staff members.\r\n\r\n"At this point in time, we have to protect our children, our families, our elderly," Franklin said. "Especially our elderly, because they are the storytellers \u2026 they are the heart of the Navajo Nation."\r\n\r\nShaken by the personal impact of the pandemic, teachers, parents and students are overcoming uncommon obstacles to learn at a distance.\r\n\r\nChris Ostgaard, superintendent of the Pi\u00f1on district, said only about 50% of students have some form of internet connection \u2013 whether it be broadband, a slow satellite connection or just a phone with a data plan.\r\n\r\nAcross the reservation, only a quarter of homes have broadband internet, and fewer than half even have a computer, according to census data.\r\n\r\nReaching those with no connection at all has been a colossal challenge. Ostgaard said enrollment across the three schools has decreased by about 100 kids from last year. Some, he said, have "disappeared, basically."\r\n\r\nMultiple times each week, the district sends out a fleet of buses filled with packets of paper schoolwork for students to pick up, complete and send back on the bus.\r\n\r\nAnd thanks to money the district received as part of the federal COVID-19 relief package, 14 buses have been equipped with Wi-Fi. They travel up to an hour, often on bumpy, unpaved roads, and park where parents and students can drive up and use the internet to do homework or upload assignments.\r\n\r\n"It's creating a new normal," said Nelson, the high school principal. "And as we all knew at the beginning of the school year, some things that we try are not going to work, some things are going to need to be tweaked, and some things will work.\r\n\r\n"But we'll just do it as we go along."\r\n\r\n___\r\n\r\nMISSING FRIENDS - AND LAUGHS\r\n\r\nAbout 20 miles from the district campus, one of those Wi-Fi buses sits in a dusty lot across the road from a gas station. Two cars, their engines idling, are parked beside it.\r\n\r\nInside, four sisters, ages 6 to 17, balance Chromebook computers on their laps and upload the day's assignments as their parents patiently do what they can to help.\r\n\r\nMath teacher Beverly Mix and construction worker Dekoven Begay have been out of work since COVID-19 began ravaging the Navajo Nation last spring. But it doesn't mean the couple aren't working.\r\n\r\n"Making sure my kids get online is a job," Mix said, "and making sure that they understand what they're being taught \u2013 because sometimes the teacher only has like 20 minutes of class."\r\n\r\nThe bus is usually in this spot every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but at Mix's request the driver came on a Thursday after a morning spent delivering meals to students' homes.\r\n\r\nTheir girls \u2013 Chenoa, Sonora, Winona and Annabah \u2013 each have specially designed car-desks that Mix ordered from Hobby Lobby. Their laptops, provided by the school district, are emblazoned with a nametag and drawing of their choosing.\r\n\r\nChenoa, a high school senior and the eldest, has a panda on her computer. An ROTC team leader, she dreams of attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas or Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University \u2013 and hopes to eventually work for the FBI.\r\n\r\nShe's been trying to stay on track but said it's been hard to fill out college applications without being able to see her school adviser. English class is especially challenging at a distance, she said, and feedback on her work is harder to get.\r\n\r\n"It causes a lot of stress because you don't know what you've done and how you can do better at it," she said.\r\n\r\nChenoa attends Chinle High School virtually, while her sisters and many members of her ROTC team are online in the Pi\u00f1on district. She hasn't seen her friends in person for six months but talks to them by phone and FaceTime.\r\n\r\nShe said many of them, including her best friend, lack the support system her family provides.\r\n\r\n"I call her my twin, because we were born on the same day," Chenoa said of her friend, who lives near a mountain and has no reliable internet connection. Chenoa had to persuade her to reenroll in school after she dropped out.\r\n\r\nChenoa's family has satellite internet at home, but it's too slow to download big files or stream videos simultaneously.\r\n\r\n"Sometimes our internet will go down," her father said, "and they're stuck without going to school for a day or so."\r\n\r\nSo they spend about 20 hours a week parked by the school bus for a better connection.\r\n\r\nOn this Thursday, the bus leaves at 3:30 p.m. and the family of six head the mile back to their home, which has been transformed into a makeshift classroom. Just inside the door is a chalkboard with the girls' assignments. A single desk overflows with glue sticks, composition books, rulers.\r\n\r\nWhen they aren't doing schoolwork in their parents' vehicles, the sisters usually sit around the kitchen table on their laptops together. Chenoa said she really only ever gets out of the house when she hikes or goes to see her orthodontist.\r\n\r\nFor the past six months, it's been the six of them here every day. On the TV is a crime show, the kind Chenoa said inspired her to pursue a career in investigation.\r\n\r\n"Most of what they do is really predictable, just following a certain rule of patterns," she said of the criminals on the screen. "Some of them are hard to spot, and some of them are really easy to find. And I really love patterns."\r\n\r\nChenoa's favorite subject is math, and it's her little sisters' favorite, too.\r\n\r\nThroughout the pandemic, she has tried to be a good role model for the girls, who are in first, second and fourth grade. The little ones share a small room packed with their favorite toys: dinosaurs for Winona, books and Pok\u00e9mon cards for Sonora, and "Frozen" dolls for Annabah.\r\n\r\nDespite all that's happening, Chenoa holds tightly to her dreams: "Everyone wants to go to university to get their degree and come back and help their people."\r\n\r\nBut for now, she and her sisters and parents lean on one another.\r\n\r\n"The thing I miss most," she said, "is laughing with my friends."\r\n\r\n___\r\n\r\nREAL AND SURREAL\r\n\r\nUnlike their students, Pi\u00f1on High School's teachers report to work each day, careful to wear masks and social distance. Alone in his classroom, 11th-grade English teacher Robert LaBarge delivers lectures into a computer.\r\n\r\n"The kids always tease me for laughing at my own jokes," he said, smiling. "But there's no one in class! Who's supposed to laugh at my jokes?"\r\n\r\nIn his room, chairs are stacked in a corner and books sit, unused, on shelves. LaBarge recently started sending dictionaries to students without Wi-Fi to help them with their vocabulary work.\r\n\r\n"It's this very strange thing," he said, "going by these buildings and these playgrounds and these basketball courts, and there's no one out there. It just feels weird."\r\n\r\nLike many of his colleagues, LaBarge makes himself available to his students however he can. He gets phone calls, texts, emails, Facebook messages, Instagram DMs. Sometimes, he said, they want to talk about schoolwork; other times, they express their feelings about living in a pandemic.\r\n\r\nOne of his students is the grandson of the high school's teaching assistant, who died of COVID-19. She worked with kids with severe developmental disabilities and was "really funny," LaBarge recalled, once people got to know her.\r\n\r\n"It takes someone with a very big heart to do that kind of work," he said.\r\n\r\nAfter she died, LaBarge noticed a palpable change in her grandson.\r\n\r\n"He's a kid who's always pretty upbeat and kind of sarcastic, and he's got an outgoing personality," he said. "So immediately you just sort of notice, that's kind of gone. He's feeling some pain."\r\n\r\nIn such a small and tight-knit community as Pi\u00f1on, he said, every loss has ripple effects.\r\n\r\n"It made it more real and surreal," he said of the deaths of his co-workers. "It's noticeable that there are two people missing."\r\n\r\nAs teachers inside take their lunches alone at their desks, vehicles full of families pull up to a tent at the back of the school. Nearly every driver wears a mask and holds up fingers through their windows, signaling how many meals they need. During the pandemic, the school has been putting together take-home breakfasts and lunches for district families.\r\n\r\nAngelica Sandoval, who has an eighth-grade son at home alone, helps hand out trays of Salisbury steak, pineapple and milk. The previous day, she said, they gave out more than 100 meals.\r\n\r\nUnable to be with her son during the day, she can only hope he's getting his homework done.\r\n\r\nLife on the reservation during COVID-19, she said, is "stressful, depressing, scary."\r\n\r\n___\r\n\r\nSTILL DREAMING\r\n\r\nIn May, research published by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University predicted that springtime school shutdowns would result in children returning for the fall semester with 63% to 68% of the typical gains in reading and 37% to 50% in math.\r\n\r\nUnsurprisingly, the researchers noted that setbacks would likely be greater for children of color and those who live in poverty \u2013 especially those without reliable internet.\r\n\r\nIn Pi\u00f1on, teachers and administrators didn't need a research paper to tell them that.\r\n\r\nPrincipal Nelson mentioned one student in particular, who lost his only surviving parent to the virus and moved to Phoenix to work 10-hour days in construction while keeping up with online coursework. Feeling overwhelmed, he eventually returned to Pi\u00f1on to live with extended family.\r\n\r\nHe isn't the only one in that type of situation, said Ostgaard, the superintendent.\r\n\r\n"We have a few (students) that for different reasons, I guess you would almost consider homeless at this point," he said. "They're kind of bouncing from relative to relative, and they're in different places."\r\n\r\nGustafson, the science teacher, worries most about those students who can't get connected \u2013 noting that many, while still technically enrolled, have not been turning in schoolwork.\r\n\r\nThe divide between the kids with and without internet is "de facto segregation," he said.\r\n\r\n"The students that don't have the net, and consequently don't have immediate feedback \u2026 on material or whatever else, they aren't necessarily getting everything that students with the net are getting."\r\n\r\nStill, for those they can reach, the school's online efforts have been so successful that the Arizona State Board of Education granted the district approval to use their approaches to virtual learning to open a fully online high school available to any Arizona student \u2013 the Pi\u00f1on Eagles Online Academy.\r\n\r\n"What we've tried to do here at Pi\u00f1on High is try to take a negative and turn it into a positive," Nelson said.\r\n\r\nAnd whenever the Pi\u00f1on schools do reopen their doors, he added, it will be optional for students to return.\r\n\r\nDespite all that they're facing, Pi\u00f1on officials are still doing what they can to inspire their students about the future. Gustafson, a former radiological engineer who worked at nuclear power plants, spoke recently via Zoom to a group of ROTC students about his career.\r\n\r\nIt's motivation meant to remind them that their dreams still can be realized. Or, as Gustafson put it: "Get me to the university, get me to the city and something will happen."\r\n\r\nHe knows his students are dealing with a lot. One, he said, had three close family members die from COVID-19 \u2013 all within a month of each other.\r\n\r\nStill, Gustafson has faith in their resilience.\r\n\r\n"There are students that have the dream. By golly, they do," he said. "They are making it work, regardless. They're doing what they can."\r\n\r\n___\r\n\r\nThis article was provided to The Associated Press by the Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.For more stories from Cronkite News, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org.