Desperate communities tap police, National Guard and parents amid teacher shortage

This diminishes the role of educators and undermines safety, critics say.

As the surge in COVID-19 cases spurred by the omicron variant has upended staffing at school districts across the country, desperate state and local officials have sought to fill those gaps by calling in police officers, National Guard members and even parents to help educate the nation's youth.

These latest measures come two years into a health crisis that's put untold pressure on the education sector. Parents and child advocates have been sounding the alarm about the pandemic's impact as school districts keep pivoting from in-person learning to remote -- with both teachers and parents nearing a breaking point.

Oklahoma Got. Kevin Stitt earlier this week issued an executive order to address the teacher shortage in his state, allowing all state employees to substitute teach without losing employment, pay or benefits.

"I've said from the beginning that our students deserve an in-person education and our schools need to stay open," Stitt said in a statement. "The state has a responsibility to do what we can to help make that happen, which is why I have signed this executive order to help schools suffering from staffing shortages."

Shortly after the Oklahoma executive order, images shared on Facebook by the City of Moore Police Department showed law enforcement officers in uniform serving as elementary school substitutes.

"This week, several on-duty officers are serving in the classroom as schools continue to face teacher and staff shortages," the police department's post stated, adding that two officers were covering sixth grade classes at a local school.

The Facebook post garnered more than 5,000 comments, many from community members concerned about having these officers in the classroom -- especially amid heightened tensions nationally between law enforcement and the community. The most-supported comment on the post, with nearly 3,000 likes, questioned why the substitute teachers are "in uniform and armed?"

Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday called in National Guard members in addition to state workers to "volunteer" as substitute teachers. A statement from her office said all volunteers "fulfill the same requirements as regular substitute teachers and child care workers," which includes undergoing a background check and completing an online teaching workshop.

"Our kids, our teachers and our parents deserve as much stability as we can provide during this time of uncertainty, and the state stands ready to help keep kids in the classroom, parents able to go to work and teachers able to fully focus on the critical work they do every single day in educating the next generation," Lujan Grisham said in a statement.

In neighboring Utah, ABC affiliate KTVX reported that school districts are even calling on parents to work as subs. A spokesperson for the Salt Lake School District said, "Anyone who's willing and able to substitute, we absolutely welcome you to apply for that." The spokesperson added that the standard background check process remains in place.

The desperate calls for teachers have garnered skepticism and backlash from local parents and even lawmakers.

State Sen. Carrie Hicks, a Democrat representing Oklahoma City, slammed her governor's executive order as "short-sighted solution to the challenges our schools have been facing for 22 months during a global pandemic."

"We do not have an interchangeable workforce," Hicks said in a statement. "The executive order shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. It diminishes teachers’ contributions and expertise in the field of education, undermines the safety of our classrooms and ignores the complexity involved in educating a child."