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BIE officials consult with tribes on distribution of COVID-19 funds

Tony Dearman (Cherokee) is director of the BIE. (BIE photo)

Bureau of Indian Education officials held a town hall-style webinar April 30 to discuss federal funding for the needs of schools during the Covid-19 pandemic.

BIE funded schools, like others across the U.S., faced abrupt school closures in March that will likely remain through the summer. The closures left administrators, teachers and parents scrambling to ensure students would be adequately set up for distance learning.

BIE funded schools serve almost 50,000 Native students in primarily rural and reservation areas. Florida has two BIE funded schools – Ahfachkee School on the Big Cypress Reservation and the Miccosukee Indian School west of Miami.

In opening comments, Tony Dearman (Cherokee), the BIE director, asked tribal leaders to “do their best to cooperate and have patience and flexibility,” as his department sets funding processes in motion.

“I’m confident we will be able to serve all students,” he said.

Ruth Ryder, the deputy assistant secretary in the office of elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, presented an overview of the funds BIE has to work with through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was signed into law March 27.

Ryder said there was a set aside in the bill for BIE and outlying areas within an almost $31 billion “education stabilization fund.” The set aside also includes four grant programs: the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund and discretionary grants.

Ryder said the BIE received $153 million of the almost $31 billion, or about .5%. She said the funds are in addition to other previous allotments, such as $69 million that was allocated to BIE through the Department of the Interior.

The webinar was organized so BIE officials could hear comments from tribal leaders and solicit their comments through email about the best way to set up the transfer of the $153 million in funds to BIE schools and what it should be used for.

Most tribal leaders expressed concern about the lack of broadband capability for remote learning and said there was an urgent need for funds to adequately establish it.

Some tribal leaders said they thought the funds should be distributed equally between BIE schools and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).

“There needs to be solidarity, a need to work together, our needs are intertwined,” said one caller regarding an equal split of the funds.

Ryder said the funds were set aside for K-12, BIE-funded schools only. She said TCUs have an existing set-aside of $20 million from a Department of the Interior appropriation in the CARES Act.

It was unclear whether the funding distribution could be altered. The webinar experienced technical difficulties about halfway through the one-hour event, which resulted in many participants being dropped off the call.

Written comments from tribal leaders are being taken through May 1 at listeningsession@ed.gov. More information is at bie.edu.

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