Schools forced to get creative amid staff shortages, New Mexico Gov calls in the National Guard

Staff shortages are forcing some U.S. schools to get creative amid the rapid spread of Omicron.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has asked members of the National Guard to fill in as substitute teachers in preschools and K-12 public schools in order to keep the state’s classrooms open in the wake of a surge in virus cases.

In a press conference this week, Grisham stated that school districts and preschools across the state are in need of 800 substitute teachers and daycare workers to fill shifts and asked that state employees volunteer to help in schools.

The state has estimated they will have at least 500 people to meet the challenge.

“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,” Grisham said.

In Santa Fe Public Schools, students have been doing remote learning all week due to staffing shortages. According to the district’s COVID dashboard, 129 new COVID-19 cases have been reported since Jan. 7. Nearly 19% of those are teachers.

Oklahoma is also facing its own staffing issues due to COVID.

On Tuesday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt announced that he will be signing a new Executive Order that will allow state workers to volunteer as substitute teachers, while still receiving their regular salaries.

“From the beginning, we’ve made it clear that schools need to be open for in-person learning,” Stitt stated in a press conference Wednesday. “Oklahoma students deserve that option.”

In a Twitter post, the governor said, “We can’t replace our amazing teachers in the classroom. We can help them keep school doors open and kids in the classroom.”

According to NPR’s “StateImpact Oklahoma,” approximately 400 schools in the state have either temporarily closed or switched to remote learning due to COVID-induced staffing shortages since the start of 2022.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union in the country, agreed that states, districts, and principals “are right to pull out all stops to help kids learn as Omicron surges,” but warned that this should only be a short-term solution.

“While un- or under-qualified staff can keep schools open in a moment of crisis, these quick fixes are not going to work long term,” Weingarten said, according to Yahoo News.

“Even before COVID, teachers, school nurses, support staff and bus drivers were facing daunting workloads. Layoffs at the start of the pandemic and the virus’s malaise — including Omicron and political brawling over teaching honest history — have made the situation even worse,” she added, stating schools must address the root issues of staffing problems after the Omicron surge subsides.

“The best way to fix structural shortages is to address their root causes, including low wages, poor working conditions and poisonous political fights,” she said.

Meanwhile, the CDC has a suggestion: Cancel band and football.

Recently updated guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools suggest cancelling what it calls “high risk” extracurricular activities in order to keep the doors open.

Among those activities deemed risky are football, wrestling, band and anything else that involves singing, shouting, cheering or exercise, “especially when conducted indoors.”

While most would consider these measure extreme, especially given the benefits of exercise in fighting off the virus, infectious disease expert Dr. Amesh A. Adalja told Yahoo Life that the measures make sense if schools want to stay open.

“Extracurricular activities are more likely to lead to COVID spread related to school than [teaching] activities,” he said. “If the school’s policy is to go virtual with a low threshold, those activities that are known to be higher risk should be curtailed.”

“The purpose of the school is not sports, but education,” Adalja added.

Adding fuel to the already blazing fire, students in California’s Oakland Unified School District are threatening to stay home even if the doors are open unless their demands for COVID-19 safety measures are met. According to a district-wide petition circulated last week, those demands include KN95 N95 masks be made available to every student, having twice a week PCR and rapid tests for everyone on school campuses, and making more outdoor spaces available to eat safely when it rains.

According to the petition, the students are prepared to “strike” on Tuesday if their Monday deadline is not met.

And failing all those efforts, some schools in eastern Iowa have decided to simply stop notifying families and staff of recent COVID exposures. To that end, the state’s Linn and Johnson County Public Health Departments have stopped their contact tracing efforts, according to The Gazette.

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