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For two years, the pandemic has hammered schools and accentuated the staffing shortages they are facing. It’s led to enormous problems with teacher morale, burnout, school closures and learning losses. But some states are using the National Guard to fill in the gaps. Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, which represents 3 million educators, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.
Over the last two years, the pandemic has hammered American schools and accentuated the staffing shortages they are facing.
It has led to enormous problems with teacher morale, burnout, school closures, and learning losses. And teaching shortages have been particularly acute this year during surges of the virus.
Amna Nawaz looks at that problem and the larger state of teachers' emotional health.
Districts around the country have struggled with staffing shortages of all kinds, including a lack of substitute teachers and support for special education.
This winter, New Mexico became the first state to activate the National Guard to help fill in and teach at schools. Even though the pandemic has eased considerably, there were more than 50 National Guard troops working as substitutes across 27 school districts in the state this week.
We spoke with school staff about this unusual arrangement.
Dr. Cindy Sims, Superintendent, Estancia Municipal Schools:
I am Dr. Cindy Sims. I am the superintendent of Estancia Municipal Schools.
We are a small school district, 542 kids. We're located about an hour southeast of Albuquerque.
SPC. Simon Hammond, New Mexico National Guard:
I'm Simon Hammond. And I'm with the 615th Transportation Battalion in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
And for four weeks in January, I was stationed at Aztec Middle School, Aztec, New Mexico, teaching math, some Navajo language and biology.
Adriana Flavian, Teacher:
My name is Adriana Flavian. And I teach English and college success at Santa Teresa High School in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, which borders El Paso, Texas.
I have been teaching in education for 17 years.
Dr. Cindy Sims:
Across the nation, not just in New Mexico, education systems are realizing a shortage of staffing. And it's been happening pre-COVID.
And when we got our National Guardsmen in January, it was some just-in-time help that we needed.
SPC. Simon Hammond:
We all received text messages from our unit readiness officers. And we're just like, oh, man, just loads of messaging backwards and forwards, everyone in the unit like, oh, man, they're really going to do this? Really going to send us to a school? These guys are crazy.
When we first heard that the National Guard were going to be asked to be substitutes, obviously, some teachers were very apprehensive. It was something out of a dystopian novel.
This is just a substitute with a different — a different attire on.
Lieutenant Colonel Corona takes lesson plans home, reviews them the night before. She's very well-prepared. She is fully licensed, qualified, background check. So, she just — she does a phenomenal job. And it allows us to provide that continuity and consistency for our kids in person.
The students were interesting at the beginning.
I mean, you walked in, in your uniform, and it was — there was a lot of, like, oh, God kind of faces, where they were just like, oh, man, they're sending the Army in?
But they had lots of questions, and we were able to get through discussions with the students pretty quickly in the first couple of days. And I think that calmed everybody down. They realized we were just like most other substitute teachers they had coming in, and everyone was able to relax a little bit.
It was a great idea, and a great solution to a very challenging problem.
Teachers were a little reluctant that the Guardsmen come on campus with uniforms. But that almost helped, because it commanded respect. Kids were kind of in awe of them, and they were very disciplined and helpful.
The difference that one person can make on your campus when you're struggling is profound, the ability to have another set of hands and a person who's committed to our kids when we're out of hands, we're out of support made all the difference in our in our community and in our school.
The students were great. I think the parents were really supportive. Like, teachers at the schools were just fantastic in helping us.
I think, when we left, we got this huge thank you card from the students. Everyone in the school had signed it. It just felt like we had a bit of relationship with the students.
Now, while some states used National Guard to backfill in other ways, like school bus drivers, New Mexico appears to be the only state to use them in the classroom. But teachers shortages are an issue around the country.
Becky Pringle is the president of the National Education Association, which represents three million educators and is the largest labor union in the country.
Becky Pringle, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for making the time.
I just want to get your reaction to what we saw and heard there, teaching staff and Guard troops clearly making the best of the situation, but, if we see another surge, if shortages worsen, do you see more states doing that?
Becky Pringle, President, National Education Association:
It's good to be with you, Amna.
As I listen to the educators and the superintendent talk about the fact that this is not a new problem, this is chronic, and we have been seeing the rise in educator shortages, our teachers, nurses, counselors, bus drivers, food service workers, all of them, for almost a decade-and-a-half.
And so we have been sounding that alarm.
But, as with everything else, COVID-19 exacerbated that with the increased number of educators who were leaving the profession, as well as the overwhelmed, the lack of educators in the classrooms.
So we're not surprised that there are people like the Governor Lujan Grisham who were looking at short-term solutions, which we know are absolutely essential to fill those gaps. But we have to be looking long-term, because this issue is not going away. And it will worsen if we don't do something about it.
Well, let's talk about what teachers are going through, because you asked your members how they're doing.
And here are some highlights from the result of your winter survey. Of the teachers surveyed, about 74 percent, they had had to fill in for colleagues or take other duties due to staff shortages; 90 percent said they were feeling burned out, and that it was a serious problem; 55 percent say they plan to leave their jobs sooner than plan the because of the pandemic.
Becky Pringle, that was in the winter, right? We were in the middle of this massive Omicron surge. Do those numbers get better as the pandemic numbers get better?
Amna, I just was in Kentucky. And I was hearing the same stories from those educators as I heard from the educators in New Mexico when I joined them for their rally.
And what they're saying to us is that, while they need immediate — we need to address the immediate concerns and fill those gaps right now, what they are looking for is long-term solutions, from respect of them as professionals, professional rights and autonomy, and what Governor Lujan Grisham did March, March 1, as a matter of fact, after the legislature voted, with every member of the legislature, whichever part they were in, voting in favor of raising teacher salaries.
And not only did they raise teacher salaries, but other educator salaries as well, because they know that, for them to solve this problem long-term, they have got to invest in their educators. They have got to listen to the concerns that they have had for years. And they have got to make those changes long-term.
So, let me ask you about what's happening in Minneapolis right now, where the teachers are on strike, asking for better pay and better benefits.
And the district basically says, look, enrollment is down, and so are budgets. Schools have been closed there for three weeks. How much longer do you think they will stay closed?
We know that our local affiliate, MFT, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, is working very, very hard.
And, by the way, it is not only our teachers, it's the support staff too, who are fighting to make sure that they have safe and secure schools. And we know that they are working with the reality that the school district has and the state has had a surplus, as well as the American Rescue Plan money that has come to the school district.
What they are asking is that they use that money to ensure they have smaller class sizes, and that they can attract and retain educators, so our students get the quality education they deserve.
So, funding seems to be at the heart of a lot of this.
And the question a lot of people have is, Congress in those three COVID relief bills basically gave out $190 billion for public and private schools, most of which, it appears, have made their way to school districts.
So, did any of that go towards any of these concerns?
We have seen in those school districts where educators and the unions and parents and students, administrators are working together, they have developed a collaborative plan that is making use of those funds. And we have seen them use them to help — to hire nurse, counselors, which we know we need, and mental health experts. We have seen them use them to partner with organizations within the community.
We have also seen them use those funds to begin the steps to build community schools, so that we can support our students, we can support that whole student with all of the needs that they have. We have had to continue to fight to make sure that those funds are used in the manner that they are intended, so that we can provide more educators, more resources, more supports for our students.
That is Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, joining us tonight.
Thank you for your time.
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Amna Nawaz serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour.
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