By Andrew Hay
TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – National Guard members in New Mexico have begun substitute teaching and the governor said she would do the same in a bid to keep students in classrooms during a COVID-19 surge.
Parents and public workers are volunteering in schools across the country to address teacher shortages. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico’s Democratic governor, went further in asking National Guard members to volunteer as substitutes.
Over 60 New Mexico schools have switched to remote learning since winter break. But, according to a legislative report, online learning has proved disastrous, depressing education levels in a state that is already ranked among the lowest in the country.
Since Lujan Grisham put out the call for Guard and state employee volunteers last week, 59 people have been cleared to teach following background checks and online training, the state education department said.
Lujan Grisham has also completed the process to become a substitute and will announce her plans this week, spokeswoman Nora Sackett said in an email.
New Mexico Republicans called her move to teach a “publicity stunt” and said she allowed the teacher shortage to happen.
“This is an act of desperation,” state Republican party Executive Director Kim Skaggs said in a statement.
Schools across the state had more than 1,000 unfilled teaching positions in October 2021, nearly double the amount a year earlier, according to a New Mexico State University study. The study said the pandemic appears to have both triggered an exodus of teachers and led those who might have considered a career in the classroom to question that choice.
The university researchers also cited a study by the Learning Policy Institute think tank that says New Mexico teachers face the challenge of educating many children who live in poverty.
To stem the teacher exodus, the governor has requested funds for an up to 7% increase in wages.
Education unions have supported the governor’s substitute teacher plan, with the proviso that it is an emergency measure and not a long-term fix.
“It’s a big idea to try to address a crisis,” said National Education Association New Mexico President Mary Parr-Sanchez.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Donna Bryson and Rosalba O’Brien)