Migrant children play soccer at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for...

Migrant children play soccer at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Florida, in April 2019. Credit: AP/Wilfredo Lee

More than two million migrants crossed the southern border in the fiscal year ending in September — exceeding the record set the year before. Among them were more than 150,000 unaccompanied children, plus more than half a million children and adults arriving as families.

Schools — some already stretched to the breaking point — will face complex challenges supporting the academic, linguistic, and emotional needs of this new population, beginning with the most basic challenge: simply knowing how many new students to expect.

Public schools are required by federal law to serve all school-age children who come to their doors, no matter their immigration status. While teachers, counselors, and school principals have no power to control border policy, they are directly affected by it. Not knowing how many new students will enroll makes it nearly impossible to budget or plan appropriately, particularly in hiring new teachers and other support staff.

Migration numbers are difficult to track. In a study published last year, we found that spikes in border crossings over a three-year period prior to the pandemic resulted in 321,000 undocumented and asylum-seeking children from Central America and Mexico enrolling in public schools throughout the U.S. as of March 2020. More than 20,000 were enrolled in schools in New York State — fourth nationally after California, Texas, and Florida — about half of them in schools on Long Island. Our analysis found that districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties would have needed to hire about 400 additional teachers per county to accommodate these students without increasing teacher-student ratios.

Officials at the Oakland Unified School District in California told us they enrolled the equivalent of two classrooms worth of newcomers every month leading up to March 2020. Like schools on Long Island, much of the district's annual funding and staff planning is tied to enrollment counts taken early in the school year, so it was squeezed as students continued arriving well into the winter and spring. But better and earlier preparation is hampered by the siloed, irregularly updated nature of data on children who cross the border.

To get to the estimates above, we had to triangulate data on border arrivals from the Department of Homeland Security, a DHS report on migrants’ status, data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), Department of Health and Human Services data on where unaccompanied children were being placed with sponsors, and Migration Policy Institute estimates on locations of prior waves of undocumented immigrants. Each gave us a piece of the puzzle. But no one source kept tabs on children as they moved from the border to local communities and, ultimately, into K-12 schools.

We know even less about this new surge of arrivals. Some DHS data on migrants' status has not been updated since 2020. TRAC stopped publishing data on juvenile cases in immigration courts over data quality concerns. So schools and local policymakers are even more in the dark, unable to anticipate where, when, and how many children might show up.

Solving this gap would require regular updates of data and greater collaboration, data sharing, and transparency across federal agencies. It also would require clearer communication from these agencies to state and local education policymakers.

Going to the opposite extreme and tracking these vulnerable children closely could create risks to their well-being. But more could certainly be done to get schools the information they need to plan ahead. That starts with knowing something as basic as how many students they are expected to serve.

This guest essay reflects the views of Brian Phillips and Shelly Culbertson, senior quantitative analyst and senior policy researcher, respectively, at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.