Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham serves as a substitute teacher Wednesday at Salazar Elementary School.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday became the first state employee to serve as a substitute teacher in Santa Fe Public Schools as part of an emergency program she authorized to try to keep schools open amid a COVID-19 surge.

She won’t be the last; as of Wednesday afternoon, the statewide program had 119 applicants and had issued 70 licenses, including 50 to New Mexico National Guard members.

Lujan Grisham’s face time with kindergartners at Salazar Elementary School came as the omicron variant has ravaged school districts, leaving a wave of staff and student absences and a lack of COVID-19 test availability that forced dozens of schools to return to remote learning temporarily.

The Supporting Teachers and Families initiative, launched last week, is aimed at streamlining licensure processes for state workers and state National Guard members looking to serve as substitute teachers at least through March, according to Lujan Grisham. Application fees for prospective substitutes are being waived.

In addition to Lujan Grisham, Santa Fe Public Schools spokesman Cody Dynarski said the district has a list of seven other possible program volunteers who would substitute in local classes — but their paperwork is not yet complete.

After staying late to clean up the classroom Wednesday afternoon, Lujan Grisham joked at a news conference that leading a group of 16 kindergartners at Salazar was easier than heading a Cabinet room or the Legislature, but complicated nonetheless.

“I hope that I’m able to take what I learned, and what I struggled with, and apply it in a productive way to the next class I’m going to be assigned to,” she said. “I’m going to do what substitutes do: wait until they need me somewhere.”

At a roundtable event for teachers Jan. 7, Lujan Grisham quipped that teaching was far from the ideal role for her.

On Wednesday, she said, “I really want to make the point: I’m willing to do whatever a school needs.”

Lujan Grisham said she had to do a lot of prep work for her time at Salazar, and she called the licensure process she completed before that “a bit arduous.”

“It was much harder than I thought it was going to be,” she said of keeping the children on track during the art portion of the day. “It took me a lot more prep work to do that lesson plan in art than it would have taken an experienced [educator].”

Salazar principal Jule’ Skoglund said the district human resources department called her late Tuesday to see if the school required any substitutes.

“It was a complete shock to us when we found out she was coming to sub,” Skoglund said.

Although the school got some high-profile relief Wednesday, staffing issues are all too familiar.

Skoglund said it took all of last semester to get a full staff of teachers — but administrators are still seeking a special education aide and have lacked a pool of substitutes all year as school workers struggle to get children back on track after remote learning.

“It’s been a lot of hard work to try to bring these kids up,” she said.

Substitutes with classroom management are preferred, Skoglund said, but “when we’re in a spot where we don’t have anyone to go in and teach the kids, of course we’re going to be open to all of the alternatives and find out who is available.”

“As long as we have someone who has good judgment, knows how to work with students and keep them engaged … then we can get by for a day or two without masterful teaching skills,” she added.

The statewide program also is picking up speed in communities near Santa Fe.

Pecos Independent Schools requested two substitute teachers and a National Guard member to perform other tasks, Superintendent Debra Sena Holton confirmed Wednesday.

A National Guard member is expected to start working in Española Public Schools next week, and the Guard member working in Pecos should arrive in early February.

“We look forward to getting this much needed support and will await other volunteers,” interim Superintendent Vera Trujillo said in an email Wednesday morning.

Pojoaque Valley Schools Superintendent Sondra Adams said her district is using the substitutes this week and “in the future as long as it is available.”

Five districts across New Mexico were conducting class remotely as of Wednesday afternoon, along with 12 individual schools, according to the Public Education Department. Santa Fe Public Schools students returned to classrooms Monday after a week of online learning.

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