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Montana school superintendents worry mask debates are scaring good administrators away

Posted at 6:16 PM, Nov 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-28 12:48:45-05

BILLINGS — At schools across Montana, administrators are often bearing the brunt of community anger over COVID-19 rules, and they're struggling to find compromise over emotional issues like mask mandates.

The sometimes intense debates have caused some to consider early retirement. A September survey of 400 National Superintendent Roundtable members found 63 percent said they considered quitting during the 2020-21 school year. Respondents described hostile environments, increased workload and other pandemic-related stressors as reasons to leave.

It's no different in districts in Montana.

“I know there has been some announced retirements from some colleagues in the area as well too that I think probably would have stuck it out for another four or five years, but because of some of this that we’re dealing with, they’ve chosen to say, ‘Enough is enough and I’m going to take a job where I’m not getting bashed on Facebook weekly,’" said Tobin Novasio, superintendent at Lockwood Schools.

Novasio has no plans to leave. But as a member of the National Superintendents Association, he's familiar with the challenges his colleagues are facing while walking similar tightropes himself.

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Lockwood School Superintendent Tobin Novasio speaks with MTN News on Nov. 17, 2021.

Since the second school semester in 2020, Lockwood, like other schools in the state, has had to balance the risks of COVID-19 infection while teaching students- sometimes remotely, sometimes in person, and sometimes a hybrid mix.

Masks have been optional for Lockwood staff and students for the current school year after a school board decision in September, Novasio said.

He said that school board meeting featured the most community comment he'd seen in his time at Lockwood.

"There is not a lot of middle ground on anything right now. It’s either 100 percent my way or 100 percent the other way. Community boards really try to find that middle ground, whether it’s school boards or not. Just the masking thing has become so political that people either believe 100 percent that everybody should wear masks or they believe that nobody should be wearing masks. That’s been a challenge. We haven’t had a lot of it in the fallout since then. I think that people were comfortable with where we ended up," said Novasio, who's worked 16 years as a superintendent, including 10 at Lockwood.

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Lockwood High School had its first students through the doors in Aug. 2020.

Other than a few clusters of cases this year, Novasio said COVID-19 hasn't been much of a problem for Lockwood schools, which are Class A. But the schools aren't tracking total cases this year, and the only way a school will know about a positive student or staff member would be through self-reporting. Novasio said he couldn't give a total number of self-reported COVID-19 cases for the school year.

Overall, during the pandemic as a superintendent, Novasio said he felt blessed to be in Lockwood, and contention at school board meetings hasn't been as bad as other places.

"We’re your friends and neighbors. The history teacher that lives across the street from you is not part of some grand conspiracy to put critical race theory into the schools and indoctrinate kids. We’re just members of the community that are trying to do the best we can for their kids. And I think the vast majority of Montanans understand that. I think what we see and I think obviously through social media a lot of the times, the vocal, small minority really gets their voice amplified," Novasio said.

The friction between school administrators and their communities is taking its toll in other Montana districts. The Flathead Beacon reported in early November that the superintendent in Eureka, Jim Mepham, is resigning in the middle of the year, and school board members in Whitefish are facing challenges from people upset with COVID restrictions.

"It does weigh on everybody, I think, and that’s my fear. I know with superintendents in the state, we’ve lost some really good people over the past couple of years. And we always do, but that number has gone up pretty significantly as far as people choosing to retire sooner than they probably would have without kind of this pot-stirring and controversies that we’ve been having. And then on the other side, some really good, bright young folks that were looking at going into superintendency have chosen not to," Novasio said.

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The Power community is centered around agriculture and might also be seen as a commuter town to Great Falls for someone who wants their child in a smaller school district, said Power School Superintendent Loren Dunk.

In Power, a Class C school serving 125 students about 25 miles northwest Great Falls, it was masks in particular causing contention, said Superintendent Loren Dunk.

Last school year, Power students and staff were required to wear masks, and Dunk said they never had to isolate or quarantine entire classrooms or cancel any activities. They started this year out with masks optional and started seeing a rise in cases.

"We tried that for a while at Power and then noticed that there was spread in our school of the virus and had to cancel volleyball for a week for the first time during the pandemic and had to quarantine an entire classroom for a week," Dunk said.

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Power School Superintendent Loren Dunk interviews with MTN News via Zoom on Nov. 15, 2021.

The Power School Board held a special meeting in September to reinstate the mask rule and other COVID-19 restrictions in Power, Dunk said.

"Like 99 percent of the people were like, ‘Yeah, if this is what we need to do to keep our students in person learning and keep our activities going, then we need to do that. And if things settle down later on with the spread of the virus, then revisit it.’ But there was big support for it. There was a very small minority that were admittedly against masks. We lost a few students out of our school over it. We actually had one person protesting in the mornings outside of our school in little, tiny Power," Dunk said.

The protester has since started coming to the school about once a week, Dunk said. He also has seen people attend Power school board meetings who either homeschool their kids or don't have any kids of their own speak out against masks.

Since the mask rule has been back in place, Dunk said there hasn't been a single positive case in the Power schools for the past 10 weeks.

"Anecdotally, it’s the right thing to do and that’s what we’re doing. But with that comes people that disagree with those protocols. And I honestly see it as part of the whole organized movement across the nation and statewide- and now showing up here locally- that shouldn’t be happening in schools. You know, kids shouldn’t have to wear masks and they should be able to opt out and so fourth. It makes board meetings more contentious and it makes the job of teachers and administrators more difficult, quite frankly, because we’re just trying to do our best," Dunk said.

Again, the friction between school administrators and the public can be taxing, perhaps affecting the retention of administrators and the willingness for new candidates to take the job, Dunk said, adding that he's not planning to leave.

“I believe, ultimately, it’s going to put more pressure on something that already exists, and that’s recruiting teachers to come to schools. And the retention of them, yes, I don’t think it’s anything to laugh away. I think people need to put some focus on it and realize what’s going on. Like I said, if communities can’t get teachers and they can’t get administrators and much less quality ones, what’s going to happen to their school?” Dunk said.

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The exterior of the Power school building.