Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday asked members of the National Guard and state employees to volunteer as substitute teachers and child care workers as New Mexico faces a crush of COVID-19 infections.
Dozens of schools across the state have moved to remote instruction at least temporarily since winter break, and districts have reported a demand for about 900 substitute teachers.
Standing outside Santa Fe High School, closed this week amid a staffing shortage, Lujan Grisham said she hoped the new initiative would establish a pool of 500 people who can be called on to support in-person learning.
Each participating school can decide for itself whether members of the National Guard will appear in uniform or civilian clothes. They won’t be armed, in any case.
“Every child should feel safe, secure and supported,” Lujan Grisham said. “It’s just a vehicle to make sure schools can stay open.”
Volunteers from the guard and state workforce, officials said, will be asked to work where they’re needed and to meet state requirements.
Substitute teachers at K-12 schools, for example, have to undergo background checks and complete an online substitute teaching workshop.
The process takes about two days from start to finish, officials said, and new substitutes could reach schools early next week.
In an interview, Santa Fe Superintendent Larry Chavez said the district was evaluating its options Wednesday and planned to announce Thursday whether to resume in-person classes next week.
“It is fortifying to know the state has our back during this crisis,” he said.
Sub fees being waived
Under the staffing initiative, licensing fees for substitute teaching will be waived, and Lujan Grisham encouraged ordinary New Mexicans to apply if they’re interested.
She said she plans to fill out an application herself.
In Santa Fe, substitute teachers make about $130 to $165 a day, depending on education level and other criteria.
But state employees and members of the New Mexico National Guard who sign up will get their usual pay – on administrative leave for state employees or state active duty for the guard.
About 50 members of the Army and Air National Guard in New Mexico are expected to participate initially, with a potential expansion to 100 people.
State officials said they are prepared to process an influx of substitute teaching licenses to get the help into classrooms.
The state is also preparing to ensure absences in other public agencies don’t disrupt ordinary state services, officials said.
Remote learning in place
Santa Fe Public Schools is among 60 districts and charter schools that have moved into remote learning since winter break.
Child care centers have also faced closures, and they are covered under Wednesday’s initiative.
Elizabeth Groginsky, the state’s Cabinet secretary of early childhood education and care, said her agency is seeking volunteers – from the National Guard, state agencies and the public – who are willing to undergo a background check and complete health and safety training before working in child care.
Other states are also working to combat closures. In Oklahoma, for example, state employees have been asked to help as substitute teachers.
In Wednesday’s news conference, Lujan Grisham acknowledged New Mexico has faced a long-standing shortage of teachers, even before the pandemic. She has called on lawmakers this year to boost teacher pay by 7% – including for substitutes – among other efforts to expand the workforce.
Teacher vacancies in New Mexico exploded in the fall semester, with about 1,000 openings early in the school year, up from 570 the year before, according to figures shared with lawmakers.
A surge in retirements is a factor. In 2021, the state saw a 40% spike in the retirement of education employees.
The jump in cases this month – fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant – is worsening the shortage, school officials say.
“The need for substitute teachers has increased greatly,” said Kurt Steinhaus, who leads the state Public Education Department.
The omicron wave may last four to six weeks, health officials have said, based on the experience elsewhere around the world.
Lujan Grisham said she is hopeful the state can adjust parts of its pandemic strategy in March.
In the meantime, each positive test triggers a cascade of isolation and quarantine.
The Public Education Department, for example, directs students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate themselves for five days after a positive COVID-19 test or the onset of symptoms, matching state and federal guidelines.
The Santa Fe district needed about 85 substitutes one day this week, a figure that includes people needed for just a class period, not necessarily all day, state officials said.
Mary Bissell, a high school math teacher in Rio Rancho, said the shortage of teachers and substitutes is taking on a toll on students.
“We have classes that are just sitting in gyms. We have classes sitting in lecture halls,” Bissell told reporters Wednesday. “We have kids emailing, begging for help.”