by Shaun Griswold, Source New Mexico
January 25, 2022

Schools in New Mexico opened Monday with a few different members of the community joining classrooms for the first time.

To help fill staffing gaps, 46 National Guard members and 13 state employees entered classrooms as substitute teachers in public schools and early child care centers.

They cover about 7% of the need reported to the Public Education Department.

A week after the initiative was announced by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Monday was the first day for the new cohort of subs, and reports so far indicate that everything went smoothly.

Called Supporting Teachers and Families, Lujan Grisham called on state employees and members of the N.M. National Guard to step in as substitute teachers or early child care providers.

More than 87 volunteers have signed up to work in schools, according to the governor’s office. So far, 59 have completed their background check and initial licensing to work in classrooms, which they did for the first time on Monday in 21 different communities across the state.

In addition to the new substitute teacher pool, 14 state employees are signed up to work with the youngest New Mexicans at early child care centers.

While members of the National Guard can request to work in child care facilities, their primary goal is to stay in schools. Brig. Gen. Miguel Aguilar said this is the first time troops have been deployed to teach in schools.

“Optimally, a certified experienced teacher in a roomful of kids is what we all want to see,” Aguilar said.

According to the New Mexico Department of Education substitute teacher licenses were issued to the 59 people who are working in the following communities:

Farmington, Bloomfield, Aztec, Clovis, Portales, Las Vegas, Questa, Raton, Springer, Hondo, Silver City, Cobre, Deming, Alamogordo, Loving, Haberman, Artesia, Hobbs, Los Lunas, Moriarty, Estancia

This list is expected to grow as more people sign up. Anyone can sign up, not just state employees and members of the military.

Aguilar said National Guard members are on state active-duty, so they will receive pay for housing and travel to communities where they are deployed as educators. The state waived their fees to undergo background checks and meet the substitute license requirements. While the majority of the need is in metro areas like Albuquerque, he said, support for teachers in rural towns is important to keep schools open, too.

“The great thing about guardsmen is that over time, they are all placed in positions of responsibility,” he said. “So they may not have classroom experience, many of them are leaders and supervisors within the Guard. I’ve got faith that they will tackle this task as best as they can, knowing that it’s difficult work.”

Aguilar said how the National Guards members present themselves in classrooms will be up to each individual school district.

“Our soldiers and airmen have worked hard to earn the honor of wearing a uniform and certainly, if they asked us to do that, we would,” he said. “That’s the form we’d prefer to be in. But if for some reason, that community feels more comfortable that we be in civilian clothes, then we’ll do that. After all, it’s the mission that matters the most. So we don’t want to be a distraction.”

State leaders want to keep schools open, despite the omicron variant sweeping through communities. Since returning from winter break, more than 60 school districts have opted to close their doors and resume remote learning.

Lujan Grisham said bringing in the Guard and other state workers was about creating stability during an uncertain time.

“The state stands ready to help keep kids in the classroom, parents able to go to work and teachers able to fully focus on the critical work they do every single day in educating the next generation,” the governor said.

With a lack of teachers, the in-person learning experiences have resulted in multiple classrooms sharing a common space like a gymnasium with just one or two adults providing supervision.

Owen Brown works with students at Volcano Vista High School in Albuquerque who take online coursework. He also works on-site and experienced the cluster of classrooms in the school’s cafeteria.

“They were all just in there together with no sense of order,” he said.

The governor’s office and public education leaders are fighting to keep schools open, despite the rise in cases, because they’re thinking about student well-being, instructional participation and the overall benefits to a school setting.

Early child care facilities do not have the option to operate remotely. Either they are open, or they are closed. And most have stayed open throughout the pandemic, despite temporary closures when COVID spreads in a facility.

When the announcement for the initiative was made by the governor, more than 70 facilities had been forced to shut down due to staffing issues.

Elizabeth Groginsky is the secretary for the Early Childhood Education and Care Department which oversees all child care centers in the state.

“We’re seeing a lot more staff in the facility being positive,” she said. ”It was classrooms, but in other cases, centers were closed for a week or two. Our own director of communications, his children go to child care, and last week they were closed. We are there to serve the family so they can go to work. It’s not really an option to do child care remote.”

She said volunteers will be certified to work with children, and they will be under the supervision of an employee that has experience and qualifications to work in the setting, often with young children born during the pandemic.

“I think it’s both the volume of facilities that are being impacted, and the numbers of cases within those facilities,” she said. “That’s the shift we’re seeing in the children in child care, and they are not eligible for the vaccinations.”

Source New Mexico is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Source New Mexico maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Marisa Demarco for questions: info@sourcenm.com. Follow Source New Mexico on Facebook and Twitter.

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