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Head of school administrators group worries pandemic stress on staff could threaten future of Montana public schools

Steven Brewer

Early on in the school year the head of School Administrators of Montana visited districts across the state to check in on how reopening was going. After seeing some of the pandemic-related challenges school staff are facing this year, Kirk Miller penned an open letter to Montanans about the importance of public schools. Yellowstone Public Radio’s Olivia Weitz spoke with Miller to learn more.

Olivia Weitz: Early on in the school year you journeyed almost 2000 miles to talk with school administrators and visit schools around our state. Tell us a little bit about what you discovered along that journey.

Kirk Miller: What I discovered is that across the board, all across the state, our schools reopened with the fact that staff was very happy. Our educators, and everybody's support staff in those school environments were very happy to have children come back to school after the yearlong COVID and some remote learning that ended up happening the previous year.

Olivia: For you personally what is the role that schools play in our communities?

Kirk: The school in most of Montana and almost all of Montana communities is the center and the heart of the community. And we develop the pride and sense of pride of our community by celebrating the successes of our children.

Olivia: What did you discover as some of the shared experiences that schools are having in Montana as they reopen this school year?

Kirk: COVID has affected everybody's life, and all of us have a story, personal and professional, etc... of the impact of COVID on the environment. And that's no different in your school. And the public rallies that were held in early September, right at the opening of school, had the connotation that school districts were not listening to the citizens of the community. What I discovered is that school districts were listening.

Olivia: So I know that in rural parts of Montana, especially, recruitment and retention of teachers is something that communities struggle with. During this time what have you been hearing from teachers and administrators in terms of how this divisive climate is impacting their day-to-day lives?

Kirk: The impact of COVID now may be our largest recruitment and retention challenge. And I say that after numerous conversations with educators—that would be administrators, teachers and even support staff—they are expressing that the environment that gets created when everybody is upset with whatever the implementation is in the school environment is just not a healthy place to work. Those that are serving in our school districts are considering doing something else. There's been threats against the lives of superintendents in some school districts. There's been lots of social media contact to administrators, specifically in our school districts. We're going to see great, great numbers of impact potentially on education and the recruitment and retention of educators in Montana if we don't stop the negative kind of foisting of what's happening with COVID on your school district.

Olivia: So you wrote a little bit about how some communities seem to have lost sight of the role and the importance that schools play in our communities. What's really at stake here?

Kirk: If that challenge rises to the level that the staff in our schools, the educators and the support staff, etc... no longer want to work in that environment—that's where the real harm would happen to Montana and happen to our local communities because of what I've described as recruitment and retention issues of quality educators and its impact upon our ability to keep the community public school open and providing services. And the fact that there would be a lack of service, if that community public school closed down in almost every community across Montana and the option of private kind of schooling would be out there—I believe we would leave our children with only remote digital kind of learning, charter opportunities, for the bulk of what happens in our state.

Olivia: What are you asking of community members in terms of their interactions with the school and school administrators at this time?

Kirk: I would ask that individual townspeople would consider what their local school was doing. And then once decisions are made that they would stand in support of that in protecting the health and safety of their children and keeping their school open in their community, so that everybody can go to work and everybody can have their lives get back to whatever the new normal is.

Olivia Weitz covers Bozeman and surrounding communities in Southwest Montana for Yellowstone Public Radio. She has reported for Northwest News Network and Boise State Public Radio and previously worked at a daily print newspaper. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom Story Workshop.