- School district leaders are more concerned about the mental health of students, teachers and principals than any other school issue, including student engagement, student discipline, low attendance and dipping enrollment, according to a RAND Corp. survey released Tuesday.
- Among the 359 district and charter network leaders surveyed between October and December, 40% of urban district leaders said they were concerned about lower enrollment for reasons other than delayed kindergarten entry, compared to 20% of rural and 11% of suburban district leaders, RAND reported.
- Additionally, about 75% of district leaders said political polarization over COVID-19 safety and vaccines limited their ability to teach students in the 2021-22 school year. Four out of 10 district leaders said polarization tied to critical race theory had presented the same problem, the survey found.
The latest RAND survey data further confirms how pressing and widespread mental health issues are, not just for students but for school staff as well.
In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations declared a national children’s mental health emergency, warning COVID-19 had worsened already existing challenges faced by children and teens.
The RAND data also reveals worries about fiscal cliffs are looming over urban districts more than their rural and suburban counterparts. A fiscal cliff could hit urban districts harder with enrollment potentially dropping there the most, especially once federal stimulus funds come to an end in several years, said study co-author Heather Schwartz, director of the Pre-K to 12 educational systems program and a senior policy researcher at RAND.
“Decline in enrollments is not just a blanket concern for all types of districts,” Schwartz said.
In fact, NPR reported some of the nation’s largest urban school systems have already seen significant declines in enrollment due to the pandemic. Over the last two years, New York City’s public school enrollment dropped by about 51,000 students total. Los Angeles saw 9,000 students leave the district this school year on top of a 17,000-student decline the year prior, while Chicago enrollment declined by 10,000 following a 14,000-student dip the year before.
Generally, public school enrollment in 2020-21 fell 3% compared to the previous year, making it the largest decline in over two decades.
If enrollment doesn’t rebound, there should be serious concern for impacted districts that will face cuts in state and local funding, Schwartz said.
“When enrollments decline, that means budget cuts follow, and so is that school closures? Is that reduction in school workforce?” Schwartz asked.
It’s important district leaders remain aware of a potential fiscal cliff affecting their future budgets, she said. For example, as districts hire staff with federal stimulus funds, they could hire people on annual contracts so the number of employees can decline over time, Schwartz said.
Districts could also start developing contingency plans so administrators are not scrambling if school closures do need to occur, she said.
Schwartz said the study’s findings about political polarization also show the issue impacts all types of districts, not just rural ones. The RAND survey backs up a recent study that found about 35% of all K-12 students attended schools affected by local actions related to anti-critical race theory campaigns in 2020 and 2021.
The new report advises districts to develop communication plans anticipating divided opinion among parents and staff — just as AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and the National School Public Relations Association partnered last week to launch a Leadership in School Communication Program.