July 30, 2020

VIDEO: Udall Presses Trump Administration on Bureau of Indian Education Response to COVID-19

Committee also held a business meeting on 12 bills

VIDEO LINKhttps://www.indian.senate.gov/hearing/oversight-hearing-preparing-head-back-class-addressing-how-safely-reopen-bureau-indian

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.), vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined U.S. Senator John Hoeven (R-N.D.),chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, to convene an oversight hearing to examine the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Tribal schools entitled “Preparing to Head Back to Class: Addressing How to Safely Reopen Bureau of Indian Education Schools.”

Tribal organizations, Udall, and other Senate Democrats have sent multiple letters to the Trump administration expressing concerns that delays in disbursement of CARES Act funds to Tribal schools exacerbated educational opportunity disparities for Native American students. Additionally, a number of media reports suggest confusion and delays surrounding BIE’s closure of some of the Bureau-funded schools last spring endangered students and staff while contributing to community spread of the coronavirus on some Indian reservations. 

“When I look at the state of the federal COVID-19 response for schools in Indian Country, I’m left with an overwhelming feeling that we’ve fallen short…I would describe [the Administration’s] efforts as woefully inadequate at best and dangerously irresponsible at worst,” Udall said in his opening statement. 

A full copy of Udall’s prepared opening statement for the hearing can be found below.

Udall pressed BIE Director Tony Dearman for information on the distance learning status of Bureau-funded schools whose campuses closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has been 115 days since I asked BIE to provide information on its schools’ distance learning status, and 52 days since I sent Secretaries Bernhardt and DeVos a letter requesting that same information,” said Udall. “Mr. Dearman, has the Bureau collected any information on which BIE schools and [Tribal Colleges and Universities] are able to offer distance learning to their students? And, if so, what percentage of these schools are able to offer online instruction, instruction by mail, or no remote learning?” 

Dearman first claimed that five schools with internet connectivity rates below 100 mbps were not equipped to provide their students with distance learning this past spring, but “the rest of our schools have the ability to service our students remotely.” 

“The NIEA estimates that 20% of BIE schools offered no distance learning,” responded Udall. “Which is it? … Are they accurate in saying this or is it what you were saying earlier?”

Dearman replied, “Well, again, all the schools except three offered educational services during the shutdown.” He went on to state that the method of delivery of education services across the BIE varied during the shutdown, with some providing remote instruction and others mailing work packets to students, but did not provide the specific percentages of BIE schools providing each variety of distance learning.

“On this point, there are a number of other questions… that I would submit to the record to get information on you on this to sort out these differences between what NIEA is saying and what you’re saying,” said Udall.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Udall stated, “It’s clear to me that BIE was not prepared for this hearing. I’m beyond frustrated by what I saw here today. As I said in my opening, this is absolutely unacceptable.”

Prior to the oversight hearing, the committee held a business meeting on 12 bills, including Udall’s Tribal Wildlife Corridors Act of 2019, legislation that would empower Tribes to enhance habitat connectivity on Tribal lands. Also on the agenda was the STOP Act, for which Udall offered a substitute amendment. 

“The amendment incorporates a number of key recommendations from the Departments of the Interior, State, Justice, and Homeland Security. It ensures that the bill’s intended goal – to stop the illegal export of sacred objects and other tribal cultural patrimony – is effective. This amendment reflects years of feedback from Tribes, Native organizations, and federal agencies. I am pleased to work with my colleague from New Mexico, Senator Heinrich, to improve the bill and advance it for full Senate consideration,” said Udall

The committee passed all of the bills on the agenda.

Udall’s prepared opening statement for the oversight hearing can be found below:

Thank you, Chairman Hoeven, for calling today’s hearing.

As this Committee knows all too well, the education of Native children has a deeply flawed history in our country. 

So whenever we start a discussion about Native education, I am – first and foremost – inspired by all that Native youth and teachers have been able to accomplish against the odds.  Their resiliency, tenacity, and dedication to their peoples is wholly inspiring and should serve as an example to Congress and to this Administration. 

We must meet their resolve with our own, especially as we continue to battle COVID-19 on every front in our communities – including in our schools. 

But, when I look at the state of the federal COVID-19 response for schools in Indian Country,  I’m left with an overwhelming feeling that we’ve fallen far short. 

Congressional foot-dragging on COVID-19 relief negotiations has left Bureau of Indian Education schools and Tribal Colleges and Universities without the funding they need to prepare for the upcoming school year.  It is our fiduciary charge – our trust responsibility – to make sure these schools either have the resources they need to safely reopen their campuses or to offer meaningful distance learning opportunities.  And, it is unconscionable that political fights – not policy needs -- are driving the COVID relief response. 

As for the Administration, I would describe its efforts as “woefully inadequate” at best and “dangerously irresponsible” at worst.

Just one example – BIE’s delay in issuing critical school closure guidance and inability to monitor the safety of campus shutdowns reportedly had serious consequences.  News investigations have linked BIE’s response delay to community spread of the virus on the Navajo reservation – even to the death of some BIE staff.  OSHA is now looking into the matter.

Once all the BIE school campuses closed, my office began asking the Administration a very simple, but very important question: Are BIE students receiving any form of instruction during this pandemic?  

When my staff couldn’t get an answer, I sent a letter to Secretary Bernhardt and Secretary DeVos on June 8th.  I have yet to receive a response from either Department.  And, more than four months after the closures, it sounds like BIE still doesn’t have the answer. 

During this same period, the Administration was slow responding to educational waiver requests from Tribes.  It also took its time releasing CARES Act funding to BIE schools and TCUs – taking over three months to get these funds out the door,  leaving Tribal colleges and schools without access federal COVID-19 relief resources.

The delays are seemingly endless – and they have a real impact on whether these schools will be ready for the coming school year. 

Now, just days away from the start of the school year, I understand that BIE has yet to finalize its reopening guidance, conduct COVID-19 facility needs assessments, or figure out how to start closing the digital divide.  Tribes, families, and school staff have been left to navigate these uncharted waters alone. And, when combined with the fact that the BIE has dodged this Committee’s repeated briefing requests, I’m left wondering – what exactly has  the Department and the Bureau been doing these last few months?  It’s shameful.

Mr. Dearman, I know you can agree: this failure cannot continue.  BIE must do better.

Before I wrap up, I want to extend a special welcome to our witness from the National Indian Education Association – Marita Hinds, who is a member of the Tesuque Pueblo in my home state of New Mexico.  

Marita is a graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts, has worked in both K-12 and higher education, and is dedicated to advancing Native educational opportunities for her Tribe and all of Indian Country.  I’m thankful she is able to join us for this important discussion today.

Thank you again, Mr. Chairman.