The governor deserves credit for thinking outside the box when it comes to staffing up our K-12 classrooms – and for throwing in her own application as a substitute teacher. Oh, to be a fly on the wall should Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham follow through and stun some New Mexico students as their substitute.
Faced with an ongoing educational crisis – exacerbated by a crush of recent COVID-19 infections in the state – the governor on Wednesday asked members of the New Mexico National Guard and state employees to volunteer as substitute teachers and child care workers. State employees will get their usual pay while on administrative leave, while members of the Guard who sign up will receive state active-duty pay. About 50 members of the state’s Army and Air National Guard are expected to participate initially, with hopes of expanding it to 100 people. Licensing fees for substitute teaching will be waived, and new substitutes could reach schools this week.
While not entirely new – at Albuquerque Public Schools 86 administrators have stepped up for sub duty since April 2021 – this iteration is an unorthodox move, for sure. The Associated Press says New Mexico became the first state in the nation to ask National Guard troops to serve as substitute teachers.
We’ve had teacher shortages before and muddled through, but this is different. This is a major crisis. Teachers are retiring in record numbers or opting to leave for a multitude of reasons, including COVID-related ones. Teacher vacancies in New Mexico exploded with about 1,000 openings early in the school year. The state saw a 40% spike in the retirement of education employees last year. School districts across the state report a need for about 900 substitute teachers. The governor is hoping the initiative will establish a pool of 500.
It is part of education leaders’ united front to keep kids in school – the unions are on board.
The state Department of Public Education recently announced it was shortening quarantine and self-isolation times for public school students and staff from 10 days to five, in line with revised CDC guidelines. Yet at least 60 districts and charter schools have moved to remote instruction since winter break, and state health officials say we have yet to peak in new cases of the omicron variant. New Mexico set a record for the third day in a row Friday with 6,198 new cases; on Thursday there were 6,010, up from 5,735 Wednesday. There were 633 people hospitalized throughout the state Friday, and more hospitals are implementing crisis standards of care.
So the governor has rightfully received high praise for her Supporting Teachers and Families initiative. Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus says utilizing state employees to shore up the pool of substitute teachers is an example of good government – “This is state government at its best, and we are ready to step up to support our teachers, who have been on the front lines of the pandemic for nearly two years now, by increasing the state’s pool of substitute teachers.”
Santa Fe schools switched to remote learning last week after COVID-19 cases surged within the district, with an average of 80 to 90 cases per day. Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez says “Santa Fe Public Schools greatly appreciates the STAF initiative, as this will be instrumental in helping us return and continue in-person learning” on Monday.
The national Democratic Governors Association, which Lujan Grisham recently chaired, thought the move was significant enough to merit a news release lauding the initiative. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham “knows that kids learn better in the classroom, and this initiative will give kids, educators, and working families the stability they need during this pandemic,” said DGA Senior Communications Advisor Christina Amestoy.
It’s still unclear how many state employees and National Guard members will flock to classrooms. But it’s worth the effort to find out. State and local leaders are rightly doing all they can to avoid a return to the disaster that is remote learning. In June 2020 the Legislative Finance Committee estimated students had lost three months to a year of learning with in-person classes on hold.
And that was more than a year ago.
There’s no doubt about New Mexico’s untapped teaching potential. We have retired Ph.D.s all over the state. The education and training of National Guard members have never been higher. And we have a deep well of state employees to draw from – New Mexico has the largest concentration of public-sector workers in the southwestern states, with nearly 28,000 state employee positions.
The governor is also encouraging other New Mexicans to apply. We hope they will consider it. Anyone who is 18 or older with a high school diploma or equivalent is eligible, and pay ranges from $78 to $165 a day depending on location and various criteria.
Yes, shifting National Guard members and state employees into substitute teaching roles is only a stopgap measure. Having state employees on administrative leave won’t help in the delivery of state services, and having them in classrooms won’t likely move the needle in a state where just one out of three students can read at grade level and one out of five can do grade-level math. But keeping kids in class and helping them from falling even further behind is a much better prospect than shuttering school buildings and losing even more ground.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.
To be a sub
Parents can help by getting themselves and their children vaccinated. The state Health Department has a vaccine scheduler tool at vaccinenm.org. Albuquerque Public Schools is holding vaccination clinics for students of all ages. There will be a shot clinic from 2-6 p.m. Monday at Los Padillas Elementary School; no appointment is needed. There will also be a shot clinic Monday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Berna Facio Professional Development Complex; appointments are necessary. Information about APS shot clinics is available at aps.edu. Parents should take advantage of the clinics and help stop the spread.