As officials struggle to keep schools open amid waves of the highly contagious COVID-19 omicron variant sweeping through the nation, New Mexico is considering deploying the National Guard to help schools, many of which have been forced to shift to remote learning.
"We have a proposal 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," New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said at a press conference last week.
It is unclear what staffing shortages troops could possibly fill at public schools. Guardsmen serve in one of many occupations in the military, including infantry, mechanics and pilots. There is no position in the Army or Air National Guard that can qualify troops to be teachers, and a spokesperson for Grisham said using troops is a work in progress.
Since the pandemic, the National Guard has had to juggle a near-constant barrage of domestic missions and its missions abroad. The unprecedented use of the Guard has the service component carrying a heavy workload responding to the pandemic, delivering food to low-income communities, administering tests and vaccines, and filling staffing shortages at hospitals.
"We've seen nothing like this; the Guard might be a victim of its own success," John Goheen, a spokesperson for the National Guard Association, told Military.com. "The Guard has been compared to a Swiss Army knife and, for many governors, has been one, but they can't do everything all the time."
The Guard has also responded to multiple instances of civil unrest, mostly spurred by the police murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning on police brutality against Black Americans. After a deadily pro-Trump mob seized the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, some 26,000 Guard troops were deployed to Washington, D.C., for nearly three months.
Number of Guardsmen deployed across the U.S. on federal orders:
- COVID-19 pandemic relief-related missions: 15,600
- Winter Storm Izzy: 350
- Tornado response: 60
- Wildfire response: 300
- U.S.-Mexico border: 2,340 (Plus, some 10,000 on state orders)
In addition to the Guard's domestic missions, 23,600 troops are deployed abroad, including soldiers with the Florida National Guard in Ukraine amid a dangerous faceoff with Russian forces.
Yet governors are increasingly deploying their troops for situations that have not been traditionally in their scope of operations. Massachusetts, for example, is using soldiers to drive school vans amid a shortage of bus drivers. Washington state activated troops to help process unemployment claims early in the pandemic.
Most Guardsmen work full-time civilian jobs, and Goheen noted that every soldier deployed takes someone out of the workforce. That issue has been highlighted by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's troubled border mission, in which some 10,000 Guardsmen are deployed.
A number of Guardsmen at the border also work as correctional officers or police. Documents reviewed by Military.com showed several law enforcement officials begging Texas Guard leadership to excuse their soldiers so they can continue their law enforcement duties, citing shortages of police on the streets and personnel to run prisons. Many of those requests were denied.
"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."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.