Add Chemawa Indian School to the growing list of schools planning to start online this year, rather than in-person, due to the coronavirus.

The nation’s longest continuously operating boarding school for Native American students will start out online in September, according to plans for the Salem boarding school shared with staff July 24. The plan for Chemawa comes after a conference call with top federal officials ten days earlier, during which tribal leaders and educators alike worried about coronavirus spreading at schools with populations considered at higher risk.


"I don't want to lose any staff or any students. It would be awful and tragic if anybody died on campus," Leah Davis, an English teacher at Chemawa, told leaders of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education on the July 14 conference call.

“If I'm a parent, I wouldn't release my daughter to go to a boarding school right now,” Davis said. “[If] she got sick, she couldn’t get back to me, she'd be quarantined. There'd be no way for me to get to her. I wouldn't take that risk.”

Valerie Switzler, cultural and heritage manager with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, worried about what might happen if a boarding school opened, students came and then contracted the virus. "It scares me that, you know, that some of our students that do live in the Southwest or do live in other areas of the country and how would we get them back home if they did get sick, or if the tribe is going to let them come back home sick?"

Another Chemawa teacher warned that parents and students aren’t the only ones who worry. Teacher Diane McGinnis told federal officials that administrators might have a hard time persuading staff to come to work.

“We have a limited staff in the best of times. So making that decision to stay open, in the worst of times, I don't know how we're going to find people to do all that is needing to be done in the time necessary,” said McGinnis, who, like Davis, teaches English at Chemawa.

Related: Chemawa Indian School

In 2017, OPB reported extensively on difficulties at Chemawa, including students who died at school or shortly after leaving, as well as shortcomings in academics, oversight and financial management. Some blamed the difficulties on insufficient staffing, inadequate training, or a lack of support from school and bureau leaders. Those stories led to multiple visits by Oregon's congressional delegation and a combative hearing on Capitol Hill.


Chemawa shut down this spring, along with much of the rest of the country, as COVID-19 numbers increased. While concerns are similar to those at other schools, they're more intense. The coronavirus is affecting Native Americans at five times the rate of white Americans. Indigenous people also tend to be at higher risk of dying or hospitalization from COVID-19, at least in part due to above-average rates of underlying health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

A slide presentation shown as part of the July 14 consultation included several pages of "Reopening Considerations," emphasizing the cleaning of facilities, spreading out students in dormitories, as well as detecting and responding to positive cases. Boarding schools also have to consider how students would travel to school and back safely, including how to respond if a boarding school has a significant outbreak and students have to return to the reservation after being potentially exposed to COVID-19.

The Bureau of Indian Education presentation also pointed out a lack of “adequate, highly trained medical staff” or even employees designated to “enforce social distancing” at the boarding schools. And as many schools and universities have, the  Bureau of Indian Education presentation raises a concern about “staff who may be at high risk.”

It appears Chemawa administrators were listening to worries about how schools that have had difficulties with student safety and health would respond during a global pandemic.

According to plans for Chemawa shared with OPB by a person briefed on them, the Oregon boarding school plans to open remotely this fall, rather than accept boarding students. That’s a huge change for a school that’s been teaching residential Native American students continually for 140 years. According to what was shared, the Bureau of Indian Education intends to fund necessary technology, such as document cameras and other teaching aids to help deliver instruction from Salem to tribal reservations across the country.

Delaying in-person instruction is consistent with what was suggested by some people on the July 14 call with federal officials, including Sue Parton, the president of the Federation of Indian Service Employees Union, which represents employees at Chemawa.

“[T]o not have in-person coursework offered until January of 2021 is a prime example of how BIE should be looking at operating our schools for now,” Parton said. “It's not ideal, but it will, I believe, provide our community with a lot more thinking that this is going to be a safe way for us to educate our students.”

But there are challenges with teaching students on reservations, as well — and some people on the recent call with federal officials were concerned about a lack of connectivity and available devices for students who would be expected to learn online, rather than on campus at a school such as Chemawa.

“[I]f it turns out that the opening of the off-reservation boarding schools is not an option, the tribe needs to revamp our internet services for online learning,” said Matthew Putesoy Sr., the vice chairman of the Havasupai Tribe, which is located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

Chemawa’s plan would be for remote instruction to last until January 2021, when school administrators plan to reopen the Salem campus to Native American students from all over the country. Other than staff hearing that facial coverings would be not be mandatory, they did anticipate social distancing rules and stepped-up cleaning.

School staff also worried what effect having students learning from home would have on school funding —because boarding schools like Chemawa are typically funded based on residential enrollment. Bureau of Indian Education Director Tony Dearman didn’t have a complete answer to how funding would work — the July 14 call was mostly to receive input. But he said he didn’t want schools to feel compelled to open over funding.

“We’re really trying to address everything that’s out there where our schools are not punished,” Dearman said. “Because this is not a time to penalize them on this —  our schools, our communities — because of the pandemic.”