Even as school districts set their sights on a new school year with fewer mitigation measures in place and lower rates of transmission of COVID-19, many local educational agencies were facing the same issues in spring 2022 as they were in fall 2021, according to a recent RAND survey.
Using nationally representative survey responses from 291 district leaders who completed the American School District Panel, researchers found that districts “continue to struggle with how to manage teacher shortages, political polarization in schools, student and staff mental health concerns, and pandemic-related student learning loss.” Other challenges including student behavior, attendance and declining enrollment also remain.
Among the nearly 300 district leaders surveyed, 90 percent reported having to change operations in one or more of their schools at some point in the 2021–22 school year because of teacher shortages. Some of the most common changes reported include increasing pay and/or benefits for substitute teachers (60 percent); relaxing hiring requirements for substitute teachers (30 percent); enlisting teachers to cover additional duties (53 percent); combining classes (51 percent); reassigning central office staff to cover classes (49 percent); and eliminating teachers’ planning periods so they could cover classes (45 percent).
“Throughout the pandemic, districts have needed to shift their operations on the fly because of insufficient staff to maintain normal operations,” researchers wrote. “We interpret the high prevalence of districts’ operational changes as evidence that many districts had to scramble to keep schools open in 2021–22. In other words, changes to pay, to staff duties, and to the school schedule were the norm, not the exception, in the 2021–22 school year.”
Looking ahead, about half of district leaders reported concern that a fiscal cliff was looming once federal COVID-19 aid expires, and said they are trying to prepare for it. Of those, 49 percent said they were avoiding certain staff hires to prevent later layoffs; 40 percent were “making up-front investments with federal stimulus funds;” 39 percent were boosting their rainy-day fund; and 32 percent were hiring staff as contractors or in yearly contracts to allow for flexibility.
Other key findings
- Districts that increased substitute teachers’ daily pay did so by an average of 6 percent above pre-pandemic levels, after adjusting for inflation
- Seventy-seven of districts have increased their number of teaching and nonteaching staff above pre-pandemic levels, and 79 percent have expanded the number of nonteaching staff (i.e. bus drivers, paraprofessionals and tutors)
- District leaders continue to express high levels of concern about student and staff mental health, and about half surveyed remained concerned since fall 2021 that political polarization about critical race theory was interfering with schooling
- Most districts are relying on variations of similar interventions to address student learning loss: summer programs (70 percent), mental health services (67 percent), tutoring (60 percent), and social-emotional learning (58 percent)
The report lays out several recommendations for local- and state-level policymakers.
- Districts should identify the extent of learning gaps among different student groups to better target the most-intensive responses. Time and resources should be invested into effectively implementing the academic interventions already adopted, such as tutoring, summer learning and social-emotional learning.
- Superintendents should work with their mayors, legislators and representatives of local hospital and health care systems to plan and implement a coordinated set of mental health services for students and staff.
- Professional associations of districts, regional education service centers and state education agencies should provide forums for district leaders to disseminate their knowledge and experience with peers.
- State education agencies should also begin to get ahead of any imminent fiscal challenges by “working with districts to closely examine finances, staff levels and enrollment projections to understand which districts have the greatest risk of facing a fiscal cliff and work to minimize or avoid such risk.”
California-specific spending trends
CSBA’s latest report, Unprecedented Times, Unprecedented Responses: An Analysis of Federal COVID-19 Relief Fund Spending in California Public Schools, analyzes how more than 900 school districts and county offices of education from across the state spent their state and federal COVID-19 relief funds in response to pandemic-related challenges.
Findings indicate that California LEAs are spending federal relief in accordance with associated deadlines. Statewide, on average, 94 percent of ESSER I and 87 percent of GEER I funds have been spent. Both have January 2023 deadlines.
Meanwhile, 57 percent of ESSER II, 17 percent of ESSER III (main) and 10 percent of ESSER III (academic impact) have been used. ESSER II has a January 2024 deadline and ESSER III’s deadline is January 2025 (LEAs can apply to the U.S. Department of Education for an 18-month extension for ESSER III).
Staffing levels and burnout, concerns about programs and services being unsustainable after the one-time money dries up, infrastructure expenses extending past deadlines due to factors such as supply chain shortages, and confusion surrounding guidelines on things like plan submissions were identified as common challenges to spending these one-time funds.