Days before Pennsylvania senator John Fetterman checked himself into the hospital to get treated for clinical depression, a statewide report on public education found mental health concerns soaring above all other classroom needs.
This is the third straight year in which the Pennsylvania School Board Association’s State of Education report has flagged mental health as a top priority for public schools, and there’s no indication from the data that the problem is receding.
“More than eight out of 10 superintendents reported student mental health issues as being a challenge to educating students, making it by far the biggest instructional challenge facing schools,” says a release announcing the report.
While concerns around student mental health have risen in profile since 2020, educators saw it as a looming challenge long before the onset of COVID-19. This is according to Brian Welles, assistant director of special education and pupil services for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.
“Was it the pandemic that created the issue or did it just draw it out?” Welles asks. “What we know now is we definitely are seeing more behavioral needs, more social-emotional needs in students.”
Right behind mental health, the PSBA report highlights rising staffing shortages as another major strain on the public education system. Those working on the front lines say the issues are connected.
“Together, it’s kind of like a cycle where they’re continuing to feed each other,” Welles says.
The shortages extend not just to teachers, but to the instructional aides, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and special education professionals who support teachers. According to the report, 92% of school districts reported various staffing shortages.
Welles says adopting new curricular approaches that work in elements of “social-emotional learning” and address “the whole child” can function akin to preventative health measures, in some cases reducing the need for special intervention. But, he adds, acute needs would still remain with a more rounded teaching approach.
“As a countywide agency, the AIU is constantly in conversations with school districts, superintendents, and special education directors … about what can be done,” Welles says.
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, tells City Paper the additional responsibility borne by teaching staff is pushing some out of the profession.
“[Teachers] have to be mental health experts, they have to be nurses,” Esposito-Visgitis tells CP. “How can you be everything to everybody when your expertise is teaching? We have to do something to turn this around, otherwise we’re not going to have teachers.”
Salaries that haven’t kept up with the cost of living and cuts to pension funds are also factoring into the exodus of teachers.
“We do have to raise the pay, we have to raise the prestige,” Esposito-Visgitis says. “In other countries it is a prestigious job. I don’t know why that’s not the case here.
Data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education shows the number of in-state teaching certifications has dropped from around 15,000 during 2010-11 to slightly more than 5,000 during 2020-21.
Statewide funding shortages are, according to educators and school officials, contributing to deficiencies in both staffing and mental health programming.
Esposito-Visgitis says, in Allegheny County, poorer districts are losing staff to wealthier suburban districts, which can afford better salaries and more support staff positions.
“I am seeing more and more [shortages] in our district and it’s very troubling to me,” says Esposito-Visgitis, who taught for 21 years at Pittsburgh Public before she began working for the union.
David Schaap, PSBA president and Brentwood District board member, tells CP that a recent release of grant funding is helping bridge some short-term gaps in staffing and mental health provisions, but notes these will dry up over the coming years.
“There are no short-term solutions that can last,” Schaap says.
A Commonwealth Court ruling on a lawsuit challenging school funding imbalances could eventually ease the situation for struggling districts. But an appeal from state lawmakers remains likely, and even if the ruling stands, its material impact on funding inequities won’t be clear for years to come.
Schaap says education costs continue to rise for districts across the state, leading to unsustainable tax hikes even for middle-income communities like Brentwood.
“It’s especially unfair in Pennsylvania because so much of the funding relies on property taxes,” Schaap says, pointing to a 2020 study concluding an additional $4.6 billion is needed to bridge the gaps in the system.
“If we were to have that kind of funding, we wouldn’t have, first of all, the inequity, but also the challenges we have with supporting all the students.”