With the Omicron variant depleting school staffs as it sweeps across the country, some states are resorting to increasingly creative measures to find the substitute teachers needed to keep schools open, in one case even calling on the National Guard.
State workers can now serve as substitute teachers in some hard-hit districts, while other states are loosening rules to speed the hiring of substitutes or draw retirees back into the classroom.
In New Mexico, where new cases have more than tripled over the past two weeks, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has asked the National Guard and state workers to fill in as substitute teachers.
“Our kids, our teachers and our parents deserve as much stability as we can provide during this time of uncertainty,” Governor Lujan Grisham said in a statement on Wednesday, “and the state stands ready to help keep kids in the classroom.”
Under New Mexico’s initiative, National Guard members and state workers must become licensed as substitute teachers or child care workers and fulfill 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 moved to remote learning, and 75 child care centers have partially or completely closed because of staffing shortages, state officials said.
Keeping schools open during the Omicron wave has become a fiercely debated issue nationally, especially among parents. President Biden was asked about school closings at a White House news conference on Wednesday, and he was quick to point out that most schools were open.
“Let’s put it in perspective: 95 percent, as high as 98 percent, of the schools in America are open, functioning and capable of doing the job,” Mr. Biden said, adding that he encouraged states and school districts to use funding to keep schools open.
According to Burbio, a data company that has tracked how schools are responding to the pandemic, for the past five schools days an average of 3,631 of the 98,000 public schools have been disrupted each day, a relatively low figure.
Whitney Holland, president of the American Federation of Teachers in New Mexico, said on Wednesday that the teacher staffing shortage was a “nationwide crisis.”
“I think ‘dire’ is an appropriate word,” Ms. Holland said, adding that she supported Governor Lujan Grisham’s initiative to keep schools open for students.
“As long as there’s a positive adult that they can build connections with — whether it’s a National Guard member or a state employee or a substitute — and we’re keeping our schools open, that’s our top priority,” she said.
In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order on Tuesday which allows state agencies to let their workers serve as substitute teachers without affecting their regular job, pay or benefits.
“I’ve said from the beginning that our students deserve an in-person education and our schools need to stay 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 an executive order last week that loosened rules for substitute teachers, citing the Omicron surge. Set to run through March, the order speeds up hiring for qualified short-term substitutes, lets current substitutes have their assignments extended, and makes it easier for retired teachers to return.
Teachers are not the only school employees in short supply. Last year in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker activated the National Guard to help with a shortage in bus drivers. And in North Carolina, legislators gave districts federal funding to cover signing bonuses to help ease a shortage of cafeteria workers.