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Unions to CCSD: Consult Navajo Nation about returning students to classrooms

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A New Mexico teachers union and the employee union for the Central Consolidated School District are asking a district court to order CCSD to consult with the Navajo Nation about reopening schools to hybrid learning.

The petition was filed this week by the National Education Association – New Mexico and the Central Consolidated Education Association to have the school district talk with tribal leaders, a discussion needed because of tribal sovereignty.

Several schools under CCSD are on tribal land and Navajo leaders, along with the tribe's Board of Education, continue to support keeping such schools in remote learning because of COVID-19 concerns.

"The land leases that CCSD has with the Navajo Nation require that CCSD follow federal and state law and balance following Navajo Nation law to the extent doing so is consistent with federal and state law," district officials said in a statement.

More:Number of communities on Navajo Nation COVID-19 advisory continues to decline

The New Mexico Public Education Department expanded in-person learning options to K-12 schools in late January. This transition started on Feb. 8 for school districts and charter schools in the state, based on protocols to keep students and teachers safe.

CCSD spokesman Roberto Taboada said secondary schools joined elementary schools in hybrid learning on Feb. 17, a day after the original start date due to inclement weather.

Still, union officials maintain that CCSD needs to consult with the Navajo Nation in respect to tribal sovereignty.

"Educators, many of them Navajo, and parents have raised concerns about the district making decisions independent of the decisions made by leaders of the Navajo Nation; thereby, bypassing the authority of the Navajo Nation," Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the NEA-NM, said.

"The union wants schools to expand in-person learning but they want it done safely and in partnership with the Navajo Nation," CCSD employee union President Michael Moss said.

More:Navajo Police Department locates two children featured in missing/endangered alert

Since the tribe experienced significant numbers of COVID-19 cases and related deaths, families in the school district know the toll of the virus, Moss added.

CCSD explained in its statement that a meeting with Navajo officials was rescheduled from last week to Feb. 19 at the request of tribal officials.

The petition names CCSD board members Gary Montoya, Suzette Haskie, Christina J. Aspaas, Charlie Jones Jr. and Sheldon Pickering and Superintendent Daniel Benavidez.

Montoya, the board president, declined comment and referred questions about the petition to the district.

The district's statement explains that CCSD students have been in a "have-not" category for decades due to the state's provision for school funding, and the pandemic added to that disparity through factors like lack of internet access and social isolation.

More:New COVID-19 case totals dropping in New Mexico; infection rates fall in 24 counties

"Given the health concerns of the pandemic, the grave educational and social-emotional needs of our students, and data indicating that schools are one of the safest buildings to be in during COVID, the CCSD board opted to give parents the choice of hybrid or remote learning," according to the statement.

It continues with, "throughout the last several months, CCSD has had several meaningful conversations with many officials of the Navajo Nation about these issues."

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or my email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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