Sunday, February 20, 2022

New Mexico National Guard fill in as substitute teachers

For the last month, dozens of soldiers and airmen and women in the New Mexico National Guard have been deployed to classrooms throughout the state to help with crippling pandemic-related staff shortages, reported The New York Times. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has also enlisted civilian state employees — herself included — to volunteer as substitute teachers.

New Mexico has been the only state to deploy National Guard troops in classrooms. But since the fall, when districts around the country began recruiting any qualified adult to take over classrooms temporarily, several other states have turned to uniformed personnel. National Guard members in Massachusetts have driven school buses, and last month, police officers in one city in Oklahoma served as substitutes.

The scenes of uniformed officers in classrooms have solicited mixed reactions. Some teachers see it as a slight against their profession, and a way to avoid tackling longstanding problems like low teacher pay. Other critics have worried that putting more uniformed officers in schools could create anxiety in student populations that have historically had hostile experiences with law enforcement.

But the presence of New Mexico’s state militia — whose members are trained to help with floods, freezes and fires as well as combat missions overseas — has largely been embraced by schools as a complicated but critical step toward recovery. Teachers have expressed gratitude for “extra bodies,” as one put it. Students were mostly unfazed but aware that, as Scarlett Tourville, a third grader in Colonel Corona’s class put it, “This is not normal.”

Superintendents were given the choice of whether to have the guardsmen and women wear regular clothes or duty uniforms; most joined Cindy L. Sims, the superintendent of the Estancia Municipal School District, in choosing the latter. “I wanted the kids to know she was here, to know why she was here,” Dr. Sims said. “I wanted them to see strength and community.”

For Dr. Sims, Colonel Corona’s presence breathed new life into a campus that had been scarred by death. In December alone, Dr. Sims attended seven funerals of people who died from Covid-19. Among them: the husband of a staff member who had contracted the disease at school and took it home, and a father who left behind a first-, seventh- and twelfth-grader. The week before Christmas, the district held a double funeral in the high school gymnasium for a father and grandmother of two students.

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