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WASHINGTON — Two Congressmen are seeking answers from Assistant Secretary of U.S. Department of the Interior – Indian Affairs Tara MacLean Sweeney and Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) Director Tony Dearman about the decision made to reopen BIE-operated schools on Sept. 16.

Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), chair of the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States, wrote to the two officials on Thursday after Dearman declined to testify at last week’s subcommittee hearing on the issue.

The two congressmen are concerned about the preparedness of the schools to operate in a safe and healthy manner in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I was appalled that the Bureau of Indian Education refused to testify at our hearing last week to discuss how to safely reopen BIE-operated schools in Indian Country,” Rep. Gallego said on Thursday.

“Instead, they’ve told BIE-operated schools to re-open in-person without consideration for local tribal consent or the prevalence of COVID-19 in a particular community. Our country has an ugly history regarding the treatment of Native children at federally operated schools; this is something that we cannot allow to happen again due to BIE’s negligence. This fall, Native children’s lives are on the line when they return to school. The lives of teachers, staff, Native families and Native communities are on the line. We need answers and cooperation from BIE to make sure schools are opening in the safest and most effective manner possible.”

The lawmakers ask a series of 16 questions, including:

  • Of the 183 elementary and secondary BIE operated schools, how many will reopen on September 16, 2020?
  • How many Covid-19 suspected infections and/or fatalities have occurred among BIE school personnel, including cases that occurred after Sept. 16, 2020, when the new school year began?
  • Why did BIE leadership allow for only one meeting of its “School Reopening Task Force” to be open to external stakeholders and tribal leaders?
  • In addition to a response to all 16 questions no later than Sept. 30, the lawmakers request a full briefing no later than Oct. 2.

The Committee heard last week from a school administrator, a tribal leader, a federal employee union representative and an advocate for students with disabilities that while all BIE schools are facing difficult choices and no safe approach has been identified, BIE and the Trump administration are making important decisions that will impact the health of at least 42,000 tribal students without fully considering relevant concerns from tribal leaders or community members.

Other than schools operated by the military, BIE schools are one of the few classes of schools operated solely by the federal government.

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