Taking the top school job in a pandemic
Craig Mueller discusses becoming superintendent during COVID-19
Last updated 4/21/2021 at 10:56am
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Craig Mueller has transitioned through three job titles in a year, all during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic first began, he was assistant superintendent and then, when previous Superintendent Andy Carlson left in July 2020, Mueller stepped into an interim superintendent role. Eventually, he would transition to the superintendent role after initially declining the position.
Looking at the year for not only himself, but Havre Public Schools as a whole, there were many transitions and many unknowns, he said. The schools went completely remote last year after the pandemic began, then the school year began last fall in a hybrid format with students attending two days a week in person and three days of remote learning with a fully remote option for students who needed it. The end of September, the entire district again went to fully remote learning due to a COVID-19 case spike and an increase of staff and students testing positive or being quarantined.
The students were returned to the hybrid schedule in November and remained that way until mid-January, when the district changed to a four day in-person learning schedule. The board of trustees decided last week that the kindergarten through fifth grade students will be returning to five-day in-person learning the last week in April.
Throughout all of these changes, teachers have changed lesson plans and administrators have arranged for social distancing in the schools and supported the staff in preparing for the changes.
Mueller said he has been faced with changes in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, making recommendations to the board based on the community matrix and number of positive cases in the district, stress of the unknown, and trying to return students to in-person learning as safely as possible.
Mueller also had the COVID-19 virus in the fall. He experienced an extended fever and various other symptoms over the course of eight days while being quarantined in his home, he said.
The transition from assistant to interim
Mueller transitioned from his pre-pandemic position of assistant superintendent to interim superintendent in July.
"When you look at the transition from assistant superintendent to the interim-superintendent position I think one of the greatest obstacles to have to overcome was what we were going to do with the curriculum and instruction and what we were going to do with human resources," Muller said.
Administrators agreed to help by each taking a portion of those two jobs in addition to running their schools during a pandemic. The reasons the administrators were asked to do this was to give them exposure to those areas and to take over some of the duties he had as assistant superintendent. That freed up more time to deal with COVID-19.
Given how late in the school year Carlson announced he was leaving the district, the school board and administration didn't want to bring in a person who didn't know those procedures and protocols while Mueller was handling the COVID-19 situation, he said.
Mueller also retained the ability to return to the position as assistant superintendent at that time and would have taken those duties back over if he did.
He said the other administrators in Havre Public Schools have been a major help during the difficult time.
"They have done a remarkable job in doing additional duties on top of what they are currently doing," Mueller said.
When faced with the decision of running for the superintendent position Mueller initially said he did not want to.
"At the time, I looked at what I thought were going to be a lot of openings on our board of trustees. I looked at where my family was, with how young our children are and kind of what the future for us looked like. At the time it didn't seem like it was the best fit. So, while I appreciated the opportunity to be the superintendent I also wanted to make sure that the district was in a good place and that we had an opportunity to open the superintendent position to get qualified candidates," Mueller said.
It was after Christmas break and the students returning to four days a week in-person learning that Mueller started to see the job in a different light, he said.
"I was looking forward and actually realizing that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We had an opportunity for our staff to be vaccinated, vaccines are being increasingly made available to the public and so that was a really good boost for our school and also our community," Mueller said. "What a great opportunity to continue to work with the people that I really enjoy working with and to finish some of the work that I have been involved with in the past several years as assistant superintendent and the course of this year as interim superintendent."
Mueller said he had talked to several board members and been approached by people about whether he was going to reconsider and put his name in for the position.
"I decided to do that knowing that we had a great deal of work to do yet, and I really believe there are good benefits to what our district has potential to do, and we have done a really good job, in my opinion, through the course of this pandemic. The concentrated effort by our teaching staff is just remarkable and its something that I don't think a lot of communities have, the tight bond of teachers," he said. "That's inspiring. We have a great group of teachers. We also have a great group of support staff who stepped up when they needed to to ensure, since we returned in August, that kids were getting the education they needed to."
Mueller said these were all factors that helped him decide to put in the application for the position.
"I was fortunate to go through the interview and I appreciated the board even considering me for an interview, given that I had already declared that I wasn't interested in pursuing that position. So that speaks volumes about what I think they felt about the job that I had done up to that point. Through the interview process I was selected," he said. "That part has been really exciting and really uplifting as far as refocusing on what is important in our district, and I really believe it trickles down to each individual kid."
Decisions coming up
Mueller said the district has several big decisions coming up that involve substantial amounts of money from federal assistance. The decisions will involve the board of trustees and administrators collaborating and deciding where the priorities within the district lie. This summer the group will develop a strategic plan detailing where the money will be spent.
"Not only will it be a very busy end of the year here, its going to be very busy summer in preparation for a full return to what we hope is close to normal school in the fall," he said. "My vision has always been deeply focused on curriculum and instruction, and nothing replaces a good teacher, quality educator in a classroom, and being able to interact with children. I think that's so important."
Mueller said that, throughout the pandemic and remote learning, the district learned there were things that could be done better than they were being done pre-pandemic such as teaching techniques, teaching strategies and ways to address different learners who may not be successful in a traditional classroom.
"That is going to be the direction we go when we dive a little deeper into personalized learning and transformational learning as we look for ways to address needs in our student body," he said.