Roughly 100 New Mexico National Guard troops are set to deploy to fill critical teacher shortages in public schools in an effort to avoid a return to remote learning. The move marks yet another entry in the Guard's growing portfolio of missions since the pandemic began.
This month, at least 60 of the state's 146 school districts have reverted to remote learning, a challenging hurdle for parents to manage and something experts have warned is creating a mental health crisis among students and stifling learning, especially among kids from low-income families.
About 44 Guardsmen have been deployed to classrooms already, and plans call for that number to grow to roughly 100 total activations in the coming weeks, Brig. Gen. Miguel Aguilar, New Mexico's assistant adjutant general, told Military.com in an interview Wednesday.
The effort is part of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's initiative to boost the state's teaching force, which has been depleted as the highly contagious omicron variant sweeps through the nation. In addition to the Guard, New Mexico is requesting help from all state employees.
"Our schools are a critical source of stability for our kids -- we know they learn better in the classroom and thrive among their peers," Grisham said in a press release last week. "Our kids, our teachers and our parents deserve as much stability as we can provide during this time of uncertainty."
The Guard mission will not fall under Title 32 orders -- a mechanism for deploying troops under state orders but backed by federal funding -- as most of the pandemic-related missions have so far. Usually, an emergency declaration by the president is issued ahead of Title 32 orders, with troops earning all the benefits associated with active duty -- such as accruing GI Bill benefits.
Instead, troops will fall under state active duty, or SAD, orders. This effectively makes troops state employees.
Guardsmen used for the mission are strictly volunteers, Aguilar said. They'll serve as substitute teachers and will go through the same vetting process any other potential substitute would, including a background check and an online orientation for the job, which requires licensing. Computers to facilitate the training have already been set up in at least one National Guard armory.
"Everyone on this mission is a volunteer, and they can come off as they need," Aguilar said. "If you are in a classroom and teaching, you should want to be there. We're going to send folks that are able to do it and really want to do it."
New Mexico's mission filling in substitute teacher positions highlights the increased role of the National Guard over the past two years. The force has spent the bulk of the past two decades fighting post-9/11 wars, making up a large chunk of combat power in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Traditionally, the Guard was seldom used domestically outside of occasionally responding to natural disasters. But with the wars winding down and governors increasingly relying on Guardsmen, the force's mission has slowly morphed away from combat and toward filling in labor gaps and state emergencies.
When the pandemic started, governors immediately deployed their troops to run testing sites. Now, troops are staffing hospitals and even driving school vans in Massachusetts. All of the missions were spurred by staffing shortages, mostly due to the toll the virus has taken on the workforce.
Beyond pandemic requirements in recent years, a lot of Guardsmen were on frequent rotations tied to civil disturbance missions, mostly connected to protests over police brutality against Black Americans that proliferated after the killing of George Floyd. Those security missions eventually culminated in 26,000 Guardsmen securing the U.S. Capitol for about three months after a pro-Trump mob attempted to subvert the transfer of power to a new president in January 2021.
Meanwhile, the Guard is still filling its federal role with deployments abroad. Roughly 20,000 Guardsmen are deployed around the world, including 150 Florida troops in Ukraine amid a dangerous standoff with Russian forces.
"All of these [missions] are important," a senior Guard official from another state told Military.com on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation. "I don't know what you'd remove, but something has got to give at some point. … I don't think the Guard is built to fill in for everything a governor might need on top of wars."
Unlike federal deployments, which are usually planned far ahead of time, domestic missions are mostly ad hoc -- which some fear is putting a strain on families and civilian employers. In the case of Texas' border mission, soldiers were mobilized with as little as four days' notice. Because of the rushed planning, that mission has been plagued with issues of soldiers going unpaid, alcohol abuse and reported suicides and self harm.
"There hasn't been a moment in history in which the state has needed the Guard as much as it has," Aguilar said of the New Mexico Guardsmen. "We've also been cognizant of overusing our folks; we're only using what we need so that we're not placing families and employers in tough situations."
Whether troops wear their military uniforms while on teaching duty will be up to the schools.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.