From pandemic academic recovery and calls to strengthen family engagement to the need for preventing cyberthreats and school violence, there’s no shortage of challenges facing the nation’s education system. As 2023 gets underway and the K-12 sector faces looming deadlines for emergency pandemic funds, ongoing battles over curriculum and more, the following trends will be critical for education leaders to watch, according to a report from K12 Dive.

Planning for the end of ESSER funding

This year, expect to see school districts tap more of their federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to continue paying for pandemic recovery efforts while keeping an eye on meeting the final obligation deadline of Sept. 30, 2024.

The ARP pocket of funding is the last and largest of three COVID-19 allocations totaling $189.5 billion. With the first obligation deadline already passed and the second coming on Sept. 30, 2023, the clock is ticking for education leaders to budget this historic funding effectively.

Some states and districts have already adjusted their funding models — or are considering doing so — to avoid a fiscal cliff after federal emergency funds end and to retain student and staff supports that were added during the pandemic.

But as staffing shortages and student absences continue to hamper progress, budget certainty will become even more difficult.  Education leaders will need to balance goals for better student outcomes while still trying to meet their bottom lines.

Need grows for mental health supports

Mental health support continues to be top of mind right alongside academic recovery. As students report increased levels of depression and anxiety, schools have set priorities for psychoeducation in staff PD, suicide prevention training and integrating social-emotional learning in curricula.

To bolster their efforts, schools are receiving funds from sources like the Safer Communities Act, passed in June after the massacre of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.

Spike in shootings looms over school safety debates

In 2022, the nation saw an unprecedented number of school shootings alongside the most significant legislative effort in years to address the problem via Safer Communities Act. The nation’s second deadliest K-12 school shooting came just months before the 10-year anniversary of the worst, in which 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act marks a significant investment in mental health and trauma care services, violence prevention efforts, and extracurricular, after-school, and summer programming. But lawmakers are at odds on firearm regulations ranging from stricter background checks to sales prohibitions on certain weapons or accessories.

Alongside the ongoing debate over whether it’s best to invest in hardening schools with reactive safety measures or to prioritize proactive measures that target root social and mental health factors before violence occurs, school safety is a multifaceted challenge with few clear solutions on the horizon.

Teacher, staff shortage pressures continue

As teacher shortages persist for districts and schools nationwide, education leaders will continue to explore a variety of strategies for an issue exacerbated by the pandemic. Superintendent turnover also skyrocketed 46% in the nation’s largest districts as leaders spent the past few years grappling with the pandemic, political polarization, school safety issues and staffing vacancies.

To better recruit, retain and diversify staff, districts will continue to develop registered teacher apprenticeships and grow-your-own programs — building on the traction gained in 2022.

Collectively, school districts are spending as much as $20 billion in ARP funds to improve the education workforce, according to FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy.

Will leaders continue to use more of their federal COVID-19 relief dollars on one-time retention or recruitment bonuses? Will they rethink their approaches to the way educators are compensated based upon what or where they teach? Or will policymakers just consider raising the bar for teacher pay overall?

Data to track whether these strategies are actually working is thus far largely absent. To meet that need, some states, including right here in California, are beginning to require districts to report details on teacher shortages, although a federal component to amass this data is still lacking.

School cybersecurity threats multiplying

School districts remain among the most popular and vulnerable targets for cyberattacks. Ransomware attacks — in which a target’s data is encrypted and locked by a hacker who then demands a ransom in exchange for its return — have been particularly prevalent, given the amount of valuable personal data schools have from employees, students and families, as well as the lack of cybersecurity funding and resources in the education sector.

The past year has seen the Los Angeles Unified School District fall victim to ransomware and struggle with the fallout and impact of the attack — which included perpetrators Vice Society leaking stolen data online, including Social Security numbers and W-9 forms.

While the FBI, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and Multi-State Information Sharing Analysis Center discourage paying a ransom because there’s no guarantee the files being held will ultimately be recovered, the critical nature of those files often leaves districts feeling they have no choice. In December, the Little Rock School District in Arkansas did so at a hefty $250,000.

The Federal Communications Commission has taken notice, however, and is currently weighing the addition of cybersecurity to services covered by its E-rate program. Awareness is also growing around best practices, such as maintaining an offline backup of a school or district’s network in case of attack. Alongside ongoing pressure from the U.S. Government Accountability Office for federal agencies to do more to address the threat, 2023 is likely to be an eventful year for K-12 cybersecurity.