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New Mexico asks National Guard to work as substitute teachers to keep classrooms open

National Guard Specialist Austin Alt stands as he fills in as a substitute teacher due to staffing shortages caused by the coronavirus disease pandemic and other non-illness related absences at Pojoaque Valley Middle School in Pojoaque, New Mexico.
National Guard Specialist Austin Alt stands as he fills in as a substitute teacher due to staffing shortages caused by the coronavirus disease pandemic and other non-illness related absences at Pojoaque Valley Middle School in Pojoaque, New Mexico.

In a sunny classroom in Pojoaque Valley Middle School, northern New Mexico, a class of lively teenagers is doing a group reading exercise. Specialist Austin Alt paces around, peering over their shoulders. It's his second day as a substitute teacher, and his arrival came as a surprise.

"I went to one of my classes, and I saw him there. I was kind of shocked at first," says Joshua Villalobos, 14.

As of this week, 78 members of the New Mexico National Guard have begun work as substitute teachers. They are responding to a call from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who also asked state employees to volunteer in an effort to keep schools open during an acute shortage of teachers exacerbated by the omicron wave of COVID-19.

Alt is 25 and has no teaching experience, usually working as a technician in the laboratories at Los Alamos. He says he volunteered after seeing his younger brothers struggle with remote learning.

"The online stuff just doesn't get to them correctly," he says, and many children don't have access to a fast internet connection. "And as well, people may have to leave children at home, like — alone. Like, that's not the safe thing to do."

Alt says he had a few hours of training and a background check before his first assignment — teaching band class. He did not feel fully prepared.

"I was anxious. I didn't know what to expect," he says. But the students were kind to him, "welcoming me in and very respectful and such as well. They showed me a lot about learning music," he laughs. "It was a learning experience on both ends."

The students say they like Alt, and have no problem with a soldier subbing if it means the school stays open. During the omicron wave, there have been even fewer teachers than usual.

"It's pretty stressful," says Villalobos. He didn't learn much during remote learning and says returning to school was hard. "I was kind of nervous. Like, we got there, I didn't talk to nobody, none of us really knew each other. Like, if the teacher called on me I wasn't really going to know what she's talking about." He now feels much more confident.

School principal Mario Vigil says the poorest students suffer the most when school closes. The 2021 Kids Count data book says New Mexico ranks 48th in the country in child poverty. The nonprofit Feeding America says one in five children here face hunger.

"It was very difficult for our students to be home alone," he says. "We have families who are working class families who have one, possibly two, sometimes three jobs, and they're busy working and putting food on the table."

But keeping school open is getting harder as more teachers retire or quit, ground down by remote learning and by dealing with students affected by loneliness, hardship or grief.

"We're asking them to be counselors," says Vigil, "we're asking them to be teachers, we're asking them to be caretakers. It's taxing for teachers, and I can see how our teachers are getting burnt out."

Secretary of Education Kurt Steinhaus praises teachers who adapted to the pandemic. "Those teachers stepped up to the plate and put in extra hours, worked weekends," he says. But as the months stretched out, "our teachers are saying, I'm tired. I've been on this emotional wagon here so long that I just can't continue. And so it is really tough out there."

He says there is now a shortfall of more than 1,000 teachers which is, "the biggest challenge as far as numbers we've ever had," with the number more than doubling since before the pandemic began.

When Steinhaus took the job last year, he told the governor he wanted to do everything he possibly could to keep schools open, firstly to try to improve academic achievement. "In areas with high poverty, the student achievement dropped dramatically when we went to fully remote," he says.

And secondly, and more importantly, the, "social, emotional side, the mental health, the behavioral health, there's lots of words for it. But it's how kids are feeling about themselves."

Inviting the National Guard and state employees into schools is, he concedes, a "crisis measure," but worthwhile because, "some kids, family is not stable, but school is stable. There's a person they can depend on, there's food. And in many of our schools, it's breakfast and lunch."

Not everyone agrees that minimally trained volunteers are the solution.

"I thought it was a nice gesture, but I think it's completely impractical," says Jennifer Barnwell, a teacher in the town of Carrizozo. "The only way it's going to be a help is if these people can plan their curriculum, meet the standards, know how to run a classroom effectively with classroom management, if they can meet these kids' emotional needs, I mean, are they going to do that?"

Others, who work to reduce criminal convictions and incarceration of young people, have raised concerns about military personnel in classrooms. Activist Xiuhtecutli Soto from the New Mexico Youth Justice Coalition says in an email he feels the initiative, "may be detrimental to the youth due to the fact it can be used as a method to militarize and police young people further."

There are plans to recruit and retain qualified teachers. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed a big pay rise for educators. New Mexico ranks 32nd nationwide in average salary for teachers. But right now, during this crisis, the governor has volunteered to be a substitute teacher herself.

"What is happening to our children right now is possibly going to impact them for many, many years," says Steinhaus. "And we've got to work really hard to make sure that they're connected on an emotional level with at least one adult."

Copyright 2022 KUNM

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.