Gov: National Guard, state workers to aid strained schools by next week

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Jan. 19—New Mexico National Guard members and state government employees could start stepping into public schools and child care centers statewide as early as next week to help address worker shortages amid high rates of COVID-19 and low numbers of available substitute teachers, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Wednesday.

While other states are considering similar plans, the initiative would be a first in the nation, state officials said.

Education officials cited a need for as many as 800 workers as dozens of schools have turned to remote learning and child care centers have closed.

Under the program dubbed Supporting Teachers and Families, state workers and National Guard members would volunteer to become licensed substitute teachers or child care workers.

State employees will be offered paid administrative leave, while Guard members will be on active duty — at no additional cost to schools — during the program.

Early Wednesday, the state sent a letter to state agencies and the New Mexico National Guard seeking volunteers.

Some may be substituting full days or for single class periods, while others could provide aid in school nursing offices or on contact tracing teams.

In a teleconference with media Wednesday morning, state officials said school principals would be able to choose whether National Guard members would remain in uniform or plainclothes, and no members would be armed in schools.

The New Mexico Public Education Department is working with districts and charter schools to streamline licensing processes for prospective substitute teachers, while the Early Childhood Education and Care Department has set up an online application for people interested in helping with child care programs, the Governor's Office announced.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario "Larry" Chavez said in a news release the program would be "instrumental" in helping the district return to in-person learning after classes went online Tuesday.

Last week, Chavez announced in-person learning would return Jan. 24 "if conditions improve." He cited a high number of teacher absences due to COVID-19 infections and lack of COVID-19 testing for a state-mandated program as the reasons for shutting down classrooms this week.

Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the National Education Association of New Mexico, said in a news release, "We're grateful that the governor is recognizing this moment for what it is — a crisis."

This is a developing story. Check back for details.