For students across the country, staffing shortages caused by the omicron coronavirus variant have been upending the school year. To help fill the void, some people are finding new ways to pitch in — including the governor of New Mexico.
Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, who has no previous experience in education, plans to work double duty: She recently registered to become a licensed volunteer substitute teacher and will begin in an elementary classroom on Wednesday morning.
The news came after the governor last week called on state workers and National Guard troops to become licensed substitute teachers and child care workers. The goal, according to the governor’s office, is to keep in-person school and child care services from shutting down amid the latest pandemic surge, as the virus infects educators and others in record numbers.
So far this month, about 60 of the 146 school districts in New Mexico have been forced to shift to remote learning because of staffing shortages, and 75 child care centers have partially or completely closed for the same reason. Many other school districts nationwide are also facing temporary closures.
“Our schools are a critical source of stability for our kids,” Lujan Grisham said in a news release. “We know they learn better in the classroom and thrive among their peers.”
To become a licensed substitute teacher for pre-K through 12th grade, volunteers such as Lujan Grisham are required to undergo a background check, as well as take an online teaching course, which takes two days to complete.
“I am excited to be stepping into a classroom in the coming days to support our teachers during this overwhelming time,” Lujan Grisham told The Washington Post in an email. “I believe in leading by example, and so do the dozens of other like-minded National Guardsmen and state employees who are joining me in this effort to keep our kids in class, our parents at work, and our educators able to fully focus on what they do best: teaching our children.”
The state’s Public Education Department is expediting the licensing process and waiving application fees to get volunteers in the classroom quickly, and state workers can take administrative leave to jump in and help schools and child care programs.
“We’ve heard from multiple districts that a lack of substitute teachers is among the most critical staffing issues right now, and they’ve asked for the state’s support,” said Kurt Steinhaus, New Mexico’s secretary of education. “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.”
The governor’s decision to personally register as a substitute teacher “shows that she is very committed,” he added. “We are really excited that she is willing to do this.”
“We’re grateful that the governor is recognizing this moment for what it is — a crisis,” said Mary Parr-Sanchez, National Education Association-New Mexico president. “We must invest more in our schools and our educators to safely retain the educators we have, and competitively recruit new educators into our schools.”
In addition to Lujan Grisham, many others across the country have taken on new roles and revamped job descriptions to fill in during the staff absences: Principals are cleaning bathrooms and vacuuming hallways, superintendents are teaching classes, and National Guard troops are transporting students to and from school.
Some schools are so desperate for support that parents are being summoned to take on substitute teaching roles, too.
According to Steinhaus, the governor will start teaching kindergarten students Wednesday morning at an elementary school in Sante Fe.
“Our kids, our teachers and our parents deserve as much stability as we can provide during this time of uncertainty,” Lujan Grisham said. “We have to literally have an all-hands-on-deck approach to make sure that we keep getting through this pandemic, together.”