K–12 Research

RAND Survey: District Leaders See Mental Health of Students, Staff As Top Concern

A new survey of K–12 district leaders by RAND Corp. and its nonprofit partners shows that respondents’ three biggest concerns — by an overwhelming margin — during the current school year are the mental health of students, teachers, and principals, respectively.

Between Oct. 25 and Dec. 10, 2021, RAND researchers surveyed 359 public district and charter network leaders across the United States, according to the research report released last week.

The survey was the fourth conducted by RAND as part of its American School District Panel partnership with the Center on Reinventing Public Education, Chiefs for Change, Council of Great City Schools, and Kitamba.

In the survey, researchers asked district leaders their opinions about 11 commonly reported problems facing U.S. K–12 schools during this third school year of the pandemic, including worsening student behavior, declining enrollment, difficulty providing high-quality instruction during quarantines, and mental health. RAND noted that staff shortages were surveyed separately and are not included in this report.

The concern that ranked highest by a large margin was mental health: Ninety percent of district leaders said they have either “moderate” or “major” concern about students’ mental health, and 87% said teacher mental health was a top concern, with mental health of principals coming in at 84%.

It was the only topic that more than half the respondents agreed was a “major” concern.

“Although we did not ask district leaders why they are so concerned about students’ mental health this school year, recent research and media reports suggest that increased anxiety, suicide attempts, and emergency room visits among children; large declines in academic achievement; increases in students failing to show up for classes; and increased student disciplinary issues could be reasons for district leaders’ concerns,” the survey report said.

The area of concern ranked second in prevalence among respondents was the impact on remote learning on student engagement and discipline: 61% expressed “moderate” or “major” concern about low student engagement during remote learning, and 59% responded the same about a rise in student disciplinary issues.

Other key findings from the K–12 District Leader survey:

  • 45% expressed “moderate” or “major” concern about low attendance from students and teachers.
  • 41% of district leaders reported “moderate” or “major” concern about enrollment declines for reasons other than redshirting.
  • The responses of leaders from all district subgroups expressing major concern about student and staff mental health were roughly equal, with one exception: Leaders from districts with a majority of students of color were more likely to report “major” concerns about the mental health of students than their counterparts from majority-white districts (69% versus 54%, respectively).
  • Leaders from urban districts, high-poverty districts, and districts serving mostly students of color were roughly two or three times more likely to express “major” concerns about declining student enrollment and low attendance among teachers and students.
  • 42% of rural district leaders had “major” concerns about students in remote learning not being very engaged, compared with 21% of urban and 26% of suburban leaders — which RAND attributed to the persisting digital divide and lack of access to broadband and newer technology in many rural areas.
  • 74% of district leaders agreed or strongly agreed that “political polarization about COVID-19 safety or vaccines is interfering with our ability to educate students,” and 68% said the same about parent or community beliefs in misinformation about COVID-19.
  • When asked what issues, if any, stood in the way of spending the federal ESSER funds to help students, 77% reported barriers, with 57% saying the biggest barrier was a lack of staff to hire.

The survey results “suggest that districts are confronting serious challenges in the 2021–22 school year that might be getting in the way of student learning,” RAND said in its summary. “Above all, our survey results suggest that we need solutions for widespread mental health challenges in schools.”

RAND recommends that school districts should create contingency plans for next school year that:

  • Map out scenarios that reflect continued staff shortages.
  • Investigate alternative staffing arrangements through new partnerships.
  • Anticipate the possibility of continued enrollment declines.
  • Develop viable plans for remote and hybrid instruction if future variants or pandemics evolve to require it.
  • Develop in-person school COVID-19 safety mitigation policies.
  • Develop communication plans that anticipate divided opinion among parents and staff.

Find the full report or learn more at RAND’s website.

About the Author

Kristal Kuykendall is editor, 1105 Media Education Group. She can be reached at [email protected].