Oklahoma will allow state employees to work as substitute teachers — while keeping their current jobs — as it attempts to keep schools open for in-person learning in the face of widespread staffing shortages.
It's the latest state to float an unorthodox solution to the problem of teachers and school staff calling out sick in high numbers because of an omicron-driven spike in COVID-19 infections across the country.
California is expediting the hiring process for new substitute teachers and allowing their contracts to be extended. Kansas will allow people with no college credit to become subs.
In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order on Tuesday that permits state employees to work as substitute teachers while retaining their regular jobs with no reduction in pay or benefits.
"I've said from the beginning that our students deserve an in-person education and our schools need to stay open. 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," Stitt said in a statement.
More than half of Oklahoma's schools have had to close or switch to distance learning so far this semester because of staffing shortages created by the pandemic, NPR member station KOSU reported.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said she agreed that schools should remain open but that they needed "caring, equipped teachers" in the classroom — and urged Stitt to take stronger action.
"This gesture is a cup of water on a raging fire," she said in a statement.
"With the stroke of a pen, the governor could untie the hands of schools to mitigate spread and allow hospitals to increase capacity," Hofmeister added. "The governor could immediately deploy the National Guard to assist with school transportation and food services using millions of COVID relief dollars already in hand."
The state's high number of COVID infections has simply revealed a problem that was already there, said Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.
"The teacher pipeline and sub shortages were issues before the pandemic, and COVID has exacerbated these problems," she said. "Hopefully state employees and businesses can help in the short term, but we need to continue searching for long-term solutions."
The executive order will be in effect for 120 days.
This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.