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A Superintendent On What It's Like Overseeing A School District During The Pandemic


There are about 58,000 people living in Great Falls, Mont., and they, like too many places in this country, are experiencing soaring coronavirus cases. The school system there closed down briefly this month and then shifted to remote learning for two weeks. It is not a decision made lightly. For our series Learning Curve, we wanted to hear about what it's been like overseeing a school system during the pandemic. Tom Moore is the superintendent of Great Falls Public Schools. He's also on the Cascade County Board of Health in Montana, and he joins me now.


TOM MOORE: Thank you very much. Appreciate being on your show.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is good to have you. What was the situation in your schools that led you to shift learning from in-person to virtual?

MOORE: So we've been monitoring the number of students and faculty that are either isolated because of COVID-positive tests or quarantined because of close contact. As we progressed through the first quarter, we began to notice a spike. We noticed that our absenteeism rates were skyrocketing, and our inability to fill those positions with substitutes was becoming problematic - that out of a hundred absences, only 43 of those absences for staff were able to be filled.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell me about the reaction from the community and the parents for this decision to go remote for a bit.

MOORE: We gave the community plenty of advance notice - at least a week. And that allowed for parents who have child care concerns or issues to address those. And then we also opened up some satellite child care facilities for parents who were working in the hospitals and so forth. And so the response was generally favorable. We did get some feedback from parents who obviously were concerned about the impact that it has on them. And our teachers are doing an incredible job of providing remote learning packets or distance learning via our platforms, Web-based and so forth.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You sounded the alarm last month in a letter to citizens of Great Falls, urging them to take personal responsibility to protect others if they wanted schools and businesses to remain open. And now you are seeing cases rising, and you're having to close the schools. I'm wondering what you think is behind this. I mean, obviously, there is some politics at play here. Some people simply don't believe the coronavirus is a problem.

MOORE: I think that we have an attitude in Montana of local control and independence. And so the use of masks and restrictions and so forth doesn't sit well with a large portion of our population. And the public debate that's been going on about the science and what we understand about this virus in particular - that debate is raging across the country, and Montana is no exception to that. But I think that for the most part, in our schools across Montana and here in Great Falls, because of the strict protocols that we put in place in our schools for sanitation, physical distancing, the wearing of masks, we haven't seen the outbreaks in our schools.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But I am curious - because people do take cues from their elected leaders, and it has taken only until now for Montana to put in new restrictions, including a statewide mask mandate. Do you think this should have happened sooner? And when you talk about a sort of debate about the science, that debate seems to be happening within one sector of society and not really at large.

MOORE: We had a debate at the Board of Health. We had a public forum where we took input on tightening the restrictions. And my encouragement all along to our community is, let's do the right things for the right reasons on a person-by-person basis instead of having to have our public officials impose restrictions and so forth and appeal to people's personal sense of responsibility to take care of others. And maybe that appeal came a little too late.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is your biggest worry right now for your district?

MOORE: Oh, I think overall, obviously, the health and safety and the mental health and well-being of our staff so that they can teach our children and the stress that they have been under this fall. I worry about the mental health and the overall well-being of our students when we are not able to meet with them face-to-face and the fact that as they isolate and become more distanced from their peers and from their teachers, that has an effect on their psychological and, you know, their affective growth and development. And I can - I'm concerned about that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sounds like you have a lot on your shoulders.

MOORE: Yeah. It's a - it is a concern and an issue that I take seriously daily - a lot of prayer and a lot of concern for others in our community. But I have an excellent team of people here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tom Moore is the superintendent of Great Falls Public Schools in Great Falls, Mont.

Thank you very much and we'll be thinking of you.

MOORE: Thank you, Lulu. I appreciate it. Thank you to the listeners. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.