Democrat New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is considering ordering National Guard troops to staff public schools amid a staffing shortage exacerbated by the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
“We have a proposal that I don’t think exists anywhere in the nation about what we can do about getting bodies who productively and safely can support our schools to stay open,” Lujan Grisham said, alluding to the idea at a Thursday press conference. “And we’ve already been in communication with Santa Fe Public Schools; we think that we can bolster them.”
KRQE reported a spokesperson for the governor’s office later clarified to news outlets that the governor was referring to using National Guard members to staff public schools.
It’s unclear what staff roles National Guard members could stand in for at public schools. A National Guard activation of this kind would be the first in the nation, The Associated Press reported.
Lujan Grisham said Thursday that more details about the plan would come soon.
The governor’s plans for the New Mexico National Guard come as Santa Fe area schools have seen more than 600 COVID-19 infections among its students and staff, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. The Santa Fe school district was already set to switch to remote learning this week, and other counties around the state are also considering going remote.
New Mexico Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson told the Santa Fe New Mexican at least 10 out of 43 New Mexico schools have announced plans within the last week to switch to remote learning, largely because of staffing shortages.
Robinson said the types of positions the National Guard troops would fill “remains to be determined” but wrote Public Education Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus “has discussed the National Guard project with the Governor and he supports it.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, National Guard troops throughout the country have been assigned to a variety of pandemic response efforts, including distributing food, medical equipment and vaccines. National Guard troops have also staffed hospitals, testing sites and polling stations. Massachusetts activated its National Guard to drive school buses for about two months amid a driver shortage.
The pandemic has forced the National Guard to carry an increasingly heavy workload, including for jobs that aren’t within the traditional scope of their operations and training.
John Goheen, a spokesperson for the National Guard Association, told Military.com, “We’ve seen nothing like this; the Guard might be a victim of its own success.”
“The Guard has been compared to a Swiss Army knife and, for many governors has been one,” Goheen added. “But they can’t do everything all the time.”
Goheen also noted most Guardsmen work full-time jobs and every time they are activated, they are pulled out of the civilian workforce.
“Localities need to be really careful with this stuff,” Goheen said. “In a pinch, governors have had a lot of success calling the Guard lately. They have to be careful how often they go to the Guard.”