With the Omicron variant exhausting school staff as it sweeps across the country, some states are resorting to increasingly creative measures to find the substitute teachers needed to keep schools open, and in one case, they are even calling the National Guard.
State workers can now serve as substitute teachers in some hard-hit districts, while other states loosen the rules to speed up the hiring of temps or withdraw retirees into the classroom.
In New Mexico, where new cases have more than tripled in the past two weeks, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has asked the National Guard and state workers to fill in as substitute teachers.
“Our children, our teachers and our parents deserve as much stability as we can provide in this time of insecurity,” Governor Lujan Grisham said in a statement Wednesday, “and the state is ready to help keep children in the classroom.”
Under the New Mexico Initiative, members of the National Guard and state workers must be licensed as substitute teachers or child care workers and meet the usual requirements for substitute teachers, such as background checks and a teaching workshop.
In recent weeks, about 60 school districts and charter schools in New Mexico have been relocated to distance learning, and 75 child care centers have been completely or partially closed due to staff shortages, state officials said.
Keeping schools open during the Omicron wave has become a hotly debated topic nationally, especially among parents. President Biden was asked about school closures at a White House press conference Wednesday, and he was quick to point out that most schools were open.
“Let’s put it in perspective: 95 percent, up to 98 percent, of the schools in America are open, functioning, and able to do the work,” he said. Biden, adding that he urged states and school districts to use funding to keep schools open.
According to Burbio, a computer company that has spores how schools respond to the pandemic In the last five school days, an average of 3,631 of the 98,000 public schools have been disrupted every day, a relatively low number.
Whitney Holland, president of the American Federation of Teachers in New Mexico, said Wednesday that the shortage of teaching staff was a “nationwide crisis.”
“I think ‘dire’ is an appropriate word,” said Ms. Holland, adding that she supported Governor Lujan Grisham’s initiative to keep schools open to students.
“As long as there is a positive adult with whom they can build relationships – whether it’s a member of the National Guard or a civil servant or a substitute – and we keep our schools open, that’s our top priority,” she said.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order Tuesday, allowing state authorities to allow their workers to work as substitute teachers without affecting their regular jobs, salaries or benefits.
“I have said from the beginning that our students deserve a personal education and our schools must remain open,” Governor Stitt said. “The state has a responsibility to do what we can to help make that happen.”
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a decree last week loosening the rules for substitute teachers, citing the Omicron rise. The order, which is due to run until March, accelerates the hiring of qualified short-term temps, allows current temps to have their duties extended and makes it easier for retired teachers to return.
Teachers are not the only school staff missing. Last year in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker activated the National Guard to help with the shortage of bus drivers. And in North Carolina, lawmakers provided districts with federal funding to cover signature bonuses to help ease the shortage of cafeteria workers.
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