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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox issued an executive order Monday that allows state employees to take approved leave time from their jobs to work as substitute teachers or in other school positions to help staff Utah's public and private schools.
"We know that kids learn best in the classroom, so we want to do what we can to help schools stay open. Our teachers and our children deserve our support during this difficult phase of the pandemic," Cox said in a statement.
Within five hours of Cox announcing the order, more than 100 state employees indicated they are willing to help, said Michelle Watts, human resources director of the state Division of Human Resource Management.
Depending on background check and training requirements of the respective school districts, public charter schools or private schools, Watts said participating state employees could be available to work in one or two weeks.
Asked if Cox would be substitute teaching or otherwise working in a school, Watts said "he would love to spend time with the Utah students." The executive office is considering "if they can make that happen without it being disruptive."
The executive order grants state employees up to 30 hours of paid administrative leave to work as a substitute teacher or other school staff member between now and the end of June 2022.
The order states that state employees may accept pay from the school districts for work performed in addition to using substitute leave.
Watts said part of the 30 hours of paid time off can be used to undergo background checks and training, Watts said.
"We hope many of the state's 22,000 employees will take advantage of this opportunity to help our schools," Cox said.
Watts said she hopes other Utah entities will follow suit.
"I think this program just really is well-received already and it will help with this shortage. We are hoping that other entities, other public and private entities, take this as a model and do it themselves in their companies," she said.
The omicron variant of COVID-19 has brought an "unprecedented wave" of absenteeism among teachers and education staff and labor shortages are exacerbating the problem, according to the announcement.
"Giving state employees the option to substitute teach, help in the cafeteria or perform other needed duties will ensure schools can continue to provide in-person learning experiences," the statement says.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said the offices of the Utah State Board of Education will participate and look forward to the opportunity.
"It is a great gesture for Gov. Cox to extend this invitation to members of his agencies. It will also be a great opportunity for government employees to experience firsthand what is happening in our schools in real-time. Many have children in public schools and are experiencing the shortfalls of teachers and employees first hand," Dickson said.
Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews said the association also appreciates the sentiment behind the governor's announcement.
"The shortage of qualified substitute teachers is a symptom of much larger issues. We continue to call on the governor, the Legislature and elected school boards to work together to immediately address the serious long-term concerns with substitute shortages, attracting and retaining qualified educators and the impacts of the pandemic on schools," Matthews said.
Brad Asay, president of the American Federation of Teachers — Utah, said the union supports the governor's executive order.
"We are in an emergency situation with COVID. Similar measures have been taken in other states. This will allow public school teachers and support staff to take care of their health and the health of their families," he said.
Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said he and his wife, Susan, have both volunteered in schools in the past.
"I think it's a good thing, it's kind of interesting," he said of Cox's announcement.
Meanwhile, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said all legislators should take the opportunity to go speak to classes, but he said he doesn't think he could "handle" a whole class.
Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said Utah schools need a better, long-term solution to staffing issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
"I really don't think it's a long-term solution, but it's something at this point. We're in the middle of the pandemic, so we have to do what we have to do to get our kids through this process," she said.
The executive order notes that "Utah is the number one state in the nation for volunteerism and is a place where we come together for the common good and serve those in need."
Moreover, "Utah's 22,000 public employees are unified in their devotion to bettering their communities."