Over its 386 years, the National Guard has been called upon to do many things. They have handled domestic emergencies, reconstruction efforts, counter-drug operations, and even overseas military operations. Now they’re becoming public school teachers.
The state of New Mexico and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has become the very first state to reach out to the National Guard for help. They’ll use soldiers to serve as substitute teachers for not only preschools but for K-12 public schools as well. New Mexico has been struggling for years to recruit and retain teachers but with the surge in COVID and the new omicron variant, the state has been precariously short on teaching staff.
The ask by Gov. Grisham is unprecedented, but shines a bigger light on just how rough things are going for the public-school education system in New Mexico. The inability to attract and keep teaching talent in the state has left them turning to long-term substitutes who do not have their teaching credentials. The recent COVID surge has taken its toll on the long-term subs now too, leaving New Mexico with no other choice but to turn to the National Guard.
Gov. Grisham says school districts and preschools across the state are looking for a minimum of 800 substitute teachers and daycare workers. They need to fill shifts that range from one classroom period to fill in, up to an entire day. Gov. Grisham didn’t only reach out to the National Guard to become teachers, she also asked other state bureaucrats to volunteer.
While they are looking for at least 800 helpers, Gov. Grisham hopes to quickly get 500 into classrooms or daycare centers quickly. She is encouraging public worker participation in the spirit of public service and desperate need but says that no one is being drafted to teach.
“We’ve determined that we have enough state employees, with the volunteer support with the Guard, to get to that 500 fairly readily, and that’s just looking at key departments like the education department and veterans department,” Lujan Grisham said via The Guardian.
Although New Mexico is the first state to begin asking the National Guard to assist with their teacher shortage, other states have been pressing the National Guard, as well as state workers, into action around schools in response to the COVID surge. Last year the state of Massachusetts turned to the National Guard to help support COVID testing on school campuses across the state. They then had to also turn to the National Guard to help drive school busses. Just recently Oklahoma began to allow state workers to volunteer as substitute teachers. These state workers were allowed to continue to receive their state salaries while they substituted.
In New Mexico, any National Guard member who takes on the responsibility of being a substitute teacher will serve on active duty. They will still get their normal military pay. Any state worker who teaches in a classroom will get paid leave for those days and it won’t count against any individual vacation time. In the time being, Santa Fe Public Schools have had to go back to remote classes as the omicron surge has prompted the shut down of schools in the city.
In efforts to get classrooms back into full swing, state public education officials announced that any volunteers from state agencies and the National Guard may qualify as substitute teachers with as little as two hours of training. They will also need to complete a two-step background check. Officials have said they will let the individual school districts decide whether National Guard personnel would appear in uniform or casual dress.