San Juan County river region schools adjust to online learning

Students in Bluff, Montezuma Creek, Monument Valley, and Navajo Mountain are back to learning despite the challenges of not physically being in their school buildings.

The decision for the river region of the San Juan School District (SJSD) not to physically return to school was made based on input from parents and Navajo Nation leadership.

Meanwhile, students in schools north of Bluff are back in school (See the story on page A3 regarding the mountain region schools).

At the September 9 meeting of the San Juan School Board, members of the board were made aware of successes and challenges of the river region schools after two weeks of instruction.

San Juan School District Assistant Superintendent Christy Fitzgerald reports important services are still being provided to students in the river district despite challenges this year.

Each school day, buses drive routes delivering lunches to all students throughout the southern portion of the county. Families of students with special needs can also schedule appointments to receive services, such as physical therapy, at the school.

All other students can also schedule one-on-one appointments with their teachers to discuss school work. The appointments keep one student in a classroom at a time and are available in both elementary and secondary schools.

Additionally, students and parents are working with teachers to develop learning plans as the school year gets underway. The plans consider factors such as internet access to tailor learning to the needs of students.

Currently students are able to access internet hotspots outside of schools and throughout the community to download and upload work, but that should be changing soon.

The most anticipated project in the district is the Local Area Network (LAN) internet project which will bring low-speed filtered internet to homes of school children throughout the river region.

The project received $3.9 million from the Utah State Legislature and $4 million from the Navajo Nation. Installation of the project will cost $3.95 million and yearly maintenance would cost between $172,000 and $345,000 a year, depending on the level of service.

The district is hosting weekly meetings with Solectek to receive updates on the LAN project. The California-based company has been contracted to engineer, design, and install the project.

The LAN works by installing radio receivers in homes that can pick up signals from towers in the neighboring communities.

The tower system is being designed to be a ring of towers so that if there is a break in one of the radios, there’s still a way around the ring for each area.

SJSD Education Technology Director Aaron Brewer reports the district is working to locate where towers will go within the communities.

Brewer says they’ve received positive response from businesses, chapter houses, and community members in the region who would be willing to allow transmission poles on their properties to put repeat signals around the area.

The project is important for education during the pandemic, but it will also be useful for students after COVID-19 is gone. The district has an agreement with Solectek to service the system for five years, with plans to renew for at least another five years on the project. The project could even be useful for future college students.

“It’s an educational network, so it won’t be great for watching Game of Thrones, but it will be quite good for accessing Canvas both for USU (Utah State University) instances or for San Juan School District instances.”

There is additional good news for Whitehorse High School.

In 2016 Whitehorse was placed in the Utah State Board of Education Turnaround program. The program aims to help under-performing schools improve their academic success.

On September 4 the state board voted to graduate Whitehorse High from the program

The school saw a 2.5-point jump in ACT composite scores and increased its graduation rate by 20 percent.

Additional benchmarks showed improvement. Other highlights include increased attendance, student involvement, and parent engagement including through a popular parent book club.

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