- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2022

The superintendent of Boston schools is teaching classes. A school district outside Dallas is holding a career fair in a cafeteria this weekend. And in New Mexico, the governor is calling in the National Guard.

States across the country are pulling out all the stops to find substitutes as legions of teachers stay home sick with COVID-19 or isolate after coming in close contact with an infected person.

Schools have struggled throughout the pandemic to find substitutes willing to enter classrooms, but record infection counts due to the omicron variant have fueled absenteeism, sparking a staffing crisis even as schools try to move on from remote work that dominated the early days of the pandemic.

In some cases, governors are asking their own employees to fill in.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urged state workers Wednesday to become substitute teachers alongside guard members, while Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order this week that says state agencies should let their workers fill in as classroom substitutes without losing employment, pay or benefits.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, signed an order that cuts red tape so that qualified substitutes can be hired faster and existing substitutes can extend their assignments.

SEE ALSO: N.M. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asks state workers, National Guard to work as substitute teachers

The National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, argued Thursday that the coronavirus has shed light on a long-simmering problem.

“This was a challenge even before the pandemic when experts projected yearly shortfalls of over 100,000 teachers — the results of low pay, high stress, crumbling schools and challenging working conditions,” NEA President Becky Pringle said. “The pandemic made an already dire reality even more devastating.”

When a variant like omicron hits, “the worst-case scenario becomes reality,” she said.

“There are literally not enough staff to keep schools open,” Ms. Pringle said. “This is the tragic consequence of decades spent chronically underfunding education and shortchanging students.”

The nationwide shortage is challenging President Biden’s call for classrooms to remain open despite the crushing winter surge of the virus.

Cincinnati Public Schools, for instance, will return to classroom instruction Monday after nearly two weeks of remote work due to teachers’ absences.

SEE ALSO: Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s wife, Yumi, tests positive for coronavirus

Mr. Biden downplayed the extent of school closures from the strain at a midweek news conference, saying 95% of school districts in the U.S. are open for classroom learning. He said some states haven’t spent federal funding to keep out the virus.

“There’s billions of dollars made available. That’s there. Not every school district has used it as well as it should be used. But it’s there,” he said.

Mrs. Lujan Grisham said National Guard members and state workers who volunteer in New Mexico will be subject to the same requirements as regular substitute teachers and child care workers, including a background check and completion of an online substitute teaching workshop.

“Our schools are a critical source of stability for our kids – we know they learn better in the classroom and thrive among their peers,” the governor said Wednesday. “Our kids, our teachers and our parents deserve as much stability as we can provide during this time of uncertainty, and 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.”

She announced the initiative at Santa Fe High School, which is operating remotely because of the lack of substitute teachers. Officials said 60 school districts and charter schools in New Mexico have reverted to remote instruction since winter break.

“We’ve heard from multiple districts that a lack of substitute teachers is among the most critical staffing issues right now, and they’ve asked for the state’s support,” state Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said.

In some places, high-level administrators are taking over instruction. Boston Superintendent of Schools Brenda Cassellius taught a fourth-grade class in the Roxbury neighborhood earlier this month, one day after more than 1,000 teachers and staff in the district were absent.

“Full class of brilliant, amazing students,” Ms. Cassellius tweeted on Jan. 5. “So engaged. We are working on poetry and fluency.”

The DeSoto Independent School District in Texas is holding a career expo in the high school cafeteria on Saturday as it attempts to fill 66 position vacancies in subjects like math and science.

“It’s just a tough time for educators today,” interim Superintendent Larry Lewis told WFAA, an ABC affiliate in Dallas.

The NEA’s Ms. Pringle called for near-term investments in testing and masks and other COVID-19 mitigation strategies to alleviate pressure on teachers and staff.

She said over the long haul, policymakers should focus on providing classroom resources, bolstering the mental health of teachers and offering better pay.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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