(KUTV) — The Utah legislature’s executive appropriations committee approved $3.9 million from federal COVID-19 relief money for an internet infrastructure project that will bring internet to the homes of children on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.
San Juan County Schools Superintendent Ron Nielson said this will change the lives of students who don’t have access to internet at home and have to drive to remote locations to get an internet signal to do homework in the car.
The money for the project was approved days after Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez announced all children on tribal land will attend school virtually in order to keep the coronavirus at bay after the number of cases started to flatten.
The Navajo Nation, which has about 175,000 tribal members living at the nation, has had 480 COVID-19 deaths — more than the entire state of Utah. Lately, cases have flattened and no new deaths have been reported this week.
Until the $3.9 million school internet project gets underway in the next few weeks, Nielson said some towers have been installed to bring an internet signal closer to students who live in remote areas. The goal, for now, is for students to not have to drive more than 20 minutes to find a signal.
It’s not ideal for students, but Nielson said it’s a solution until the bigger project is complete in about a year.
I’m extremely worried that we already have some students that have great educational challenges, and this is just going to greatly enhance the challenges we face,” he said.
Children who live on the Navajo Nation side of the San Juan School District already endure long bus rides — the longest one-and-a-half hours each way — to get to school.
At Bluff Elementary school, 90%of students are bused from the Navajo Nation to the school, which is in Bluff, Utah.
Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer said the pandemic shed light on all the long-time challenges on the Navajo Nation, including lack of access to healthcare, electricity, water and internet. The Navajo people were also hit hard by the virus because many have pre-existing conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
He said the pandemic gave the world a view of the challenges and inequalities that plague Navajo life. Still he said, the goal of the Nez-Lizer administration is to create positivity and look to improving life for tribal members.
Currently, he said a deal is underway with Verizon to bring internet, via satellite, to tribal members in every region. The nation spans across Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.
Bringing internet to the entire nation will be good for economic recovery and create small business opportunities.
“We are the size of West Virginia, and we only have 11 grocery stores. I’d like to see that at 20,” he said.
Bringing widespread internet access will be good for future generations, he said.
I believe in biblical scripture: ‘A man is blessed when he leaves an inheritance for his children’s children.’ We need to work at leaving that inheritance,” he said.