Browning Students Glad to be Back to In-Person School

Browning Public Schools transitioned to remote learning from March 2020 through March 2021

By NORAH MABIE, Great Falls Tribune
The Badger-Two Medicine area near the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on May 6, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

BROWNING — Corrina Guardipee-Hall stood outside Browning Elementary School on a brisk Tuesday morning. It was the second day of school.

This year is Guardipee-Hall’s fifth year as superintendent of Browning Public Schools and her 32nd year in education.

“Good morning! Welcome back!” she shouted as she helped second and third-grade students out of their cars.

“We pray every day for the safety of our kids,” Guardipee-Hall said, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted Browning Public Schools to close in March 2020. “We pray for our kids, our families, our community. But we are really happy to be back. The kids need their education.”

The pandemic disproportionately hurt Native Americans nationwide, and the Blackfeet community, which lost 48 people to the virus, was no exception. Students and teachers lost siblings, parents and grandparents to the virus. To protect their vulnerable community, the Blackfeet Nation consistently adopted safety precautions that went beyond those of the state. The tribe closed the east gate to Glacier National Park, enacted curfews, mask mandates and quarantine orders.

And Browning Public Schools transitioned to remote learning from March 2020 through March 2021. But with remote learning came new challenges. Some students and teachers don’t have internet access at home. Attendance suffered as a result. Without social interactions with friends and teachers, many guidance counselors noted an uptick in mental health issues among students.

Browning Public Schools serves 2,000 students across nine schools. Guardipee-Hall said the district is doing everything possible to keep kids in school while keeping students, teachers and their community safe.

As students climbed out of their cars on Tuesday morning, teachers measured and recorded their temperatures. Every class allows for social distancing, 97% of school district employees are fully vaccinated, and everyone wears masks.

After a year of remote learning, students and teachers were grateful to be back in school.

Cara Guardipee, a senior at Browning High School, said she was excited for “more socializing!” Cade Calica, a freshman, looked forward to football practice. And Sierha Eaton was happy “just to see people again.”

Browning Public Schools teachers were equally excited returning to in-person classes, the Great Falls Tribune reported.

“It gives me a happy heart,” said Toni Tatsey, principal of the KW-Vina Elementary School. “These kids need structure and routine and we have that for them in a loving, nurturing environment. I’m so happy to see them. Our children are sacred.”

Online learning was difficult on the Blackfeet Reservation, where about 60% of households have broadband, according to American Community Survey estimates. Guardipee-Hall said some students had to drive to the school parking lot to access WiFi from their cars. One teacher had to drive to the top of a hill to get connection.

Kesler Harwood, 10, started fifth grade at Napi Elementary School this week. He said he was excited to be back in school where he could make more friends.

“It’s a little harder for me to learn online,” Kesler said. “We have pretty spotty internet at home, so sometimes I’d get kicked out of a class. Now that I’m here, I know I can learn better.”

Many students shared Kesler’s sentiments. Matthew Trombley, 15, a sophomore at Browning High School, said he missed seeing his teachers in person.

“I didn’t like online school. It just wasn’t natural for me. I felt like it was harder for me to ask a teacher to explain something, so I think I struggled more than I would’ve in person,” he said.

Tammy Hall-Reagan is a guidance counselor at KW-Vina Elementary School, which serves pre-kindergarten through first-grade students. She said remote learning was especially hard for the younger students who aren’t as familiar with technology.

“It was a tough year. A lot of our kids are raised by their grandparents, who also don’t know how to use technology. So it’s a struggle for this age group,” she said.

Hall-Reagan said she was relieved to return to in-person learning because teachers are better able to observe students’ social-emotional skills and address their needs.

Shiela Rutherford, a guidance counselor for Browning Middle School students, said the older students had a better handle on technology but struggled in isolation.

“It’s so important for kids this age to get feedback and support from their peers. Sure, there’s Facetime and other things on social media, but it’s really not the same,” she said.

Guardipee-Hall said education is critical because it opens doors for young people.

“Knowledge is power. The more education you have, the more choices you have in your life. I want to give these kids a quality education because I want to give them choices, options, opportunity,” she said.

Dennis Juneau, assistant superintendent, said the power of choice is especially important for families in the community.

“A lot of our students’ grandparents and parents didn’t necessarily have choices growing up, so they don’t know how to access those for students. That’s where we as a district step in. We help the family learn, too. Education is really about freedom of choice,” he said.

Nicholas Rink teaches at Buffalo Hide Academy, an alternative high school in Browning. He said graduation is an important milestone for his students.

“Graduating is like winning adolescence. It’s the goal line of youth. An accomplishment like that brings satisfaction and fulfillment. A diploma is also important in accessing economic power,” he said.

Angie Pepion, who teaches at KW-Vina school, knows first-hand the power of education. Pepion said her parents struggled with addiction, so it was up to her to go to school. She gave birth to her daughter when she was in high school. While she had hoped to earn a diploma, Pepion said as a teen mother, she just “couldn’t make it work.” Instead, she earned her GED and later took classes at Blackfeet Community College. Thanks to the two-plus-two program, a partnership with the tribal college and the University of Montana Western, Pepion was able to earn a bachelor’s degree in education.

“For me, education was such a blessing. It provides stability. And my experience is helpful because I use it to relate to my students’ families. I use what I went through to better serve my students,” she said.

Guardipee-Hall said the two-plus-two program has been instrumental in hiring and retaining teachers in the district. In 1992, she estimated about 10% of Browning Public Schools employees were Native American. In 2004, that number climbed to about 40%, and this year, Guardipee-Hall said 75% of district employees are Native.

“It’s really great. We grow our own. These people know our community, they live here, and they want to stay here,” she said.

Browning Public Schools have seen other changes in recent years. The high school was recently renovated, including a new gym and turf football field, and KW-Vina Elementary will soon have an enclosed walkway to connect the campus. The district is also adopting project-based learning this year, where students will work on projects related to their interests every Friday.

“We’ve got a lot of great things going on here,” said Guardipee-Hall. “Like I said, every day is a prayer. I pray every day we will stay open and our community will be safe.”

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