District Leaders' Concerns About Mental Health and Political Polarization in Schools

Selected Findings from the Fourth American School District Panel Survey

by Melissa Kay Diliberti, Heather L. Schwartz

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Research Questions

  1. What were district leaders' most-prevalent concerns in the 2021–2022 school year?
  2. Did the challenges that district leaders report in 2021–2022 differ by district characteristics?

Policymakers had hoped that the 2021–2022 school year would be a chance to recover from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic–related disruptions to schooling. Instead, media reports of staff shortages, heated or even violent school board meetings, increased student misbehavior, low student and teacher attendance, and enrollment declines suggest increased — rather than decreased — problems during this third pandemic school year. To learn about the prevalence of these challenges nationwide, RAND researchers surveyed 359 district and charter network leaders in the American School District Panel between October 25, 2021, and December 10, 2021.

Survey results suggest that districts are confronting serious challenges in the 2021–2022 school year that might be getting in the way of student learning. Although some challenges, such as student and staff mental health, are nearly universal across districts, other challenges are more localized. Historically marginalized districts are confronting extra challenges this school year, such as getting students back in school and low teacher attendance, while a higher percentage of historically advantaged districts are encountering political polarization about COVID-19.

Key Findings

  • As of November 2021, district leaders' top three concerns out of the 11 listed were the mental health of students, teachers, and principals, respectively. Leaders' concerns about student and staff mental health were more prevalent than concerns about student engagement, student discipline, student and teacher attendance, and declined enrollment.
  • Roughly two to three times more leaders from urban districts, high-poverty districts, and districts serving mostly students of color expressed "major" concerns about declined enrollment and low student and teacher attendance compared with their counterparts.
  • Three-quarters of district leaders said that political polarization about COVID-19 safety or vaccines was interfering with their ability to educate students in 2021–2022. Four of every ten district leaders said the same about political polarization related to critical race theory.


  • Districts should create contingency plans for next school year by mapping out scenarios that reflect continued staff shortages; investigating alternative staffing arrangements through new partnerships; anticipating the possibility of continued enrollment declines; developing viable plans for remote and hybrid instruction if future variants or pandemics evolve to require it; and developing in-person school COVID-19 safety mitigation policies.
  • Districts also should develop communication plans that anticipate divided opinion among parents and staff.

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The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For this document, different permissions for re-use apply. Please refer to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation section on our permissions page.

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