The Rio Arriba County Community Health Council approved a resolution declaring the teacher shortage plaguing districts across New Mexico a public health emergency.
County Health and Human Services Director Lauren Reichelt said during the Council’s Dec. 8 meeting the shortage can be attributed to the treatment of teachers nationwide.
“We just really disrespect teachers in this country,” Reichelt said, who used to teach elementary school before working for the County.
The resolution will now be sent to the County Commission and the Española School Board for approval before being finally forwarded to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to also declare the shortage a public health emergency.
Reichelt said teacher shortages affect the quality of education students receive, which leads to negative consequences for every other aspect of the community, such as a lack of job opportunity and substance use disorder.
“If they’re poor and there’s no opportunities, then they start self-medicating,” she said. “Schools are the foundation of a strong community, and you’ve got to build your foundation before you build your health.”
While the number of vacant teaching positions has gone down in recent months, mostly due to large efforts by school districts to hire, a report by researchers at New Mexico State University found there are still over 1,000 vacancies across all districts across the state.
“It’s a harder problem to solve,” Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, who attended the Council’s meeting, said.
Herrera said recent increases in education spending at the state level has not been enough to get New Mexico schools where they need to be. She also said retaining teachers can be just as hard as hiring them in the first place.
Española School District Assistant Director of Student Services Anna Vargas Gutierrez, who sits on the Council, said an issue comes from relying on teachers to handle the behavioral health of their students, especially since some teachers lack the training.
“We think that teachers have that natural ability to teach manners, compassion and friendships,” she said. “Some of that is going to the wayside.”
Vargas Gutierrez said the District is “not doing a good job” at teaching social-emotional skills to younger students.
Lujan Grisham recently announced plans to increase teacher pay by 4 percent, while Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, called for a 10 percent raise.
Reichelt said a 4 percent raise would be good for teachers, but would have to happen for consecutive years in order to make a real difference. She said states around the country have spent too long ignoring the needs of schools and teachers.
“If we’re going to spend five decades tearing down our public schools, then we’re going to have to spend a few years building them back up,” she said.
The resolution was on the agenda for the School Board’s Jan. 15 meeting.