RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper announced a plan Wednesday that would allow state employees to volunteer as substitute teachers. Employees could also use volunteer days to work as bus drivers or cafeteria staff in K-12 school districts.

In a press release, the governor said, “This policy will encourage state employees to lend a helping hand to our students at a time of severe staffing challenges for our public schools.”

Under the plan, employees could use paid leave to serve as substitute staff in schools and keep the money they earn as substitutes. State employees can use their 24 hours of community service leave to receive training to be a substitute teacher, substitute teacher’s assistant, or other substitute staff at a school or school district. The state allows full-time state employees 24 hours of paid community service leave each calendar year. A press release said the volunteer work would not interfere with state government operations.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools had an average of 53 absences per day in December, according to the district’s chief communications officer.

In January, absences have ranged from 130-230 per day, and absences related to COVID protocols ranged from 85-123.

The district said not all those absences required a substitute teacher.

In Durham Public Schools, the district’s Chief Communications Officer Chip Sudderth said the district has seen an increase in staff absences across the board. He said the district is ready to train state employees to come and help.

“It is a great opportunity, and we will take them up on it,” Sudderth said.

One of those needs is bus drivers.

Sudderth said some routes were delayed Wednesday due to a driver shortage. He does not believe volunteers can fill in as bus drivers, even if they have a CDL license.

“There’s a difference between driving materials for the state and driving children,” Sudderth said. “And the amount of training required to make that happen for the amount of time that the governor’s talking about is probably not going to help out, but in a lot of other positions the state employees would be welcomed and prized.” 

Sudderth said volunteers will have to pass a background check.

Over the past several months, several schools across the state have been forced to cancel bus routes because of bus driver shortages. Schools have pointed to COVID-19 infections and exposures as the reason for much of this issue. In Wake County, more than 150 bus drivers were absent over two days last week impacting more than 100 bus routes. It left parents scrambling to make pick-up and drop-off plans for their children.

“State employees always step up to help our state in challenging times and this policy gives our talented employees yet another way to serve their communities,” said Barbara Gibson, State Human Resources Director, in a statement.

Suzanne Beasley is the government relations director for the State Employees Association of North Carolina. She said state employees have been called on by governors to volunteer in the past, like after a hurricane.

“State employees are willing to do that, state employment is, you know, grounded in public service,” Beasley said.

She said not everyone will be in a position to volunteer.

“What I do think is a problem is that we are so critically short-staffed in both of our biggest agencies, the Department of Public Safety and Health and Human Services, that I’m not sure people are gonna have the time,” Beasley said.

The policy will be effective Wednesday through Feb. 15.