Educators Speak 2021: 2nd Annual National Survey on School Mental Health, COVID-19 and School Reopening

By Duncan Young, CEO, Effective School Solutions

In October 2020, Effective School Solutions conducted a nationwide survey called “Educators Speak” which focused on gauging educator opinions on the state of student mental health and the impact the COVID-19 pandemic and returning to school has had on student mental health. At the time, researchers were predicting an uptick in student mental health challenges as students returned to more normalized physical schooling. Now that educators have some real-world experience under their collective belts, we wanted to reconduct the Educator Speaks survey to see how the answers have changed.

As with the original Educator Speaks survey, the focus was on the following questions:

  • What is the level of student mental health challenges districts are observing, and how does that compare to a year ago?
  • What is the level of teacher mental health challenges districts are observing and how does that compare to a year ago?
  • What are the actions that districts are taking to address the mental health challenges they are seeing?
  • What gaps are they observing in their districts’ mental health safety net?

With that context established, let’s get to the results!

Who Were the Respondents?

Respondents to this survey included 158 educators, comprising of teachers, administrators and board members.

Insight #1: Student Mental Health Challenges Have Increased Over the Previous Year

The survey responses clearly show that not only are educators observing acute mental health challenges, but those challenges are getting worse over the last year. This year, 96% of educators reported moderate to significant mental health challenges with students, up from 83% from last year’s survey.

In addition, educators continue to report a shift in mental health challenges vs. the pre-pandemic period. 60% of respondents reported that the level of mental health challenges for their student body is either “Somewhat Worse” or “Significantly Worse” than one year ago, and 84% of respondents reported that mental health challenges are worse than they were pre-COVID. While the first metric was higher last year at 71% (indicating perhaps the beginning of a deceleration of student challenges) it continues to be concerning that a majority of respondents are perceiving a negative mental health trend.

Anecdotally, conversations that we have with educators in our work with students indicate significant challenges at the beginning of this school year, as students struggle socially and behaviorally to re-integrate into school.

Insight #2: Educators Continue to Struggle as Much as Students

For the second year in a row, a second key finding is that the data indicates that teachers are struggling with their personal mental health just as much as students. We asked educators the same questions regarding their mental health as we did for students, and the results were striking.

In total, 90% of educators reported moderate to significant mental health challenges with teachers, even higher than the 84% reported on the survey last year.

In addition, educators continue to report a downward trend on mental health with 69% of respondents reporting that teacher mental health is either “Somewhat Worse” or “Significantly Worse” than a year ago. While lower than the 85% response on this question last year, as with students, significant concern remains about the trajectory.

The following comment received as part of the survey sums up how many teacher respondents feel:

“There isn’t a mental health support plan for teachers. We are pushed and pushed to the maximum and it seems like no one is advocating for us. Teachers are asked to do more than what is feasible during a pandemic. Expectations are back to “normal”, yet we are not in a normal year still.”

Insight #3: Districts are Taking a More Proactive Approach to Address Student Mental Health Challenges

Next, respondents were asked what initiatives their district had in place to support student mental health in the COVID-impacted back-to-school environment. Respondents reported the following response, with a comparison to last year’s survey included:

These results clearly indicate that districts are taking a more proactive approach vs. last year in addressing student mental health challenges, with the percentage of respondents stating they were implementing different strategies. The biggest jump was seen in the percentage of respondents stating they were implementing additional counseling, clinical and therapeutic support with a 20-percentage point increase in the number of respondents stating that they were taking steps in this area.

One area not queried last year that was included on this year’s survey was the prevalence of Trauma-Informed Practices. Over 40% of respondents stated that their district was implementing some form of Trauma-Informed Practices in response to the student mental health crisis.

Representative Comments:

“I honestly believe that our district is doing a fine job in educating our staff and even students to this very important issue.”

Insight #4: Significant Challenges and Gaps in the Mental Health Safety Net Still Exist

Finally, respondents report that there are still significant challenges in their ability to serve the increased prevalence of mental health challenges seen in students. Respondents were asked about several potential challenge areas and to state what their biggest concerns were with respect to supporting the mental health of students. Here were their responses:

What’s notable in this data is the relative persistence of concerns this year vs. last year. One key area in which the concern level has increased was in “students presenting with mental health issues who weren’t previously on the school’s radar screen.” This is not surprising given the fact that educators were not interacting directly and in person with a number of students with whom they have only been virtual with over the past 18 months.

Representative Comments:

“I think the district talks about mental health, but they are doing little.”

“Lack of staffing, staff training in trauma and same rigorous expectations with curriculum even when students are significantly behind where previous benchmarks were.”

“Moving forward too quickly and without acknowledging that we are still in a pandemic.”

“We need trained mental health professionals working in the schools to support mental health needs of both children and adults.”

“There is no mental health support plan. We are struggling and being given pats on the back.”

“Need more mental health education for teachers.”

Summary

In total, this data continues to provide a lens into the perceptions of educators when it comes to the persistent effects of COVID-19 on mental health. The concern expressed by educators in the first administration of this survey last year- both about student mental health and about their mental health- has not dissipated. Fortunately, districts appear to be taking a more proactive and wide-ranging approach to addressing the challenge.

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Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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Effective School Solutions

Effective School Solutions

Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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