For the past decade, Dr. Shailendra Gajanan has been using his analysis skills as an economist to solve questions about rural Pennsylvania posed by Commonwealth officials.
His latest analysis for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania will examine the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and related behavioral stressors of students in Pennsylvania schools.
Gajanan has received a mini grant to analyze data from the Pennsylvania Youth Survey from before and during the pandemic, which measures markers of mental health like truancy, absenteeism and violence as well as socio-economic factors.
While anecdotal evidence is abundant of physical and mental health to children caused by the pandemic, Gajanan’s analysis can help state commissions and offices understand factors such as the percentage of students burdened by such problems, where they occur the most, how they interact with existing stressors such as poverty or child abuse, effects of the digital divide between rural and urban areas as well as the impact of access to mental health services.
“This is a very important study,” Gajanan said. “When you put numbers to the stories, you know whether the anecdotal evidence is accurate.”
A full analysis can also help Commonwealth agencies know where and how to target limited funds.
“The data can reveal the extent of the damage and how to allocate resources,” he said.
From a purely economic standpoint, social costs from mental strain can be lower productivity, income inequality and higher health-care costs. Children whose educational performance has fallen could face lower lifetime earnings.
Some of the ways in which the pandemic may have directly affected students are more difficulty in establishing student-teacher contact; significant decreases in motivation, engagement and performance; absence of professionals such as teachers, health practitioners and social workers in children’s lives who can detect issues and find interventions; and significant obstacles related to food scarcity and housing stability.
Gajanan has experience studying the effects of food scarcity and other public health measures such as immunization for chikungunya in his native India.
This is the fourth grant he has won for a study conducted for the Center, which works with various government groups and organizations to maximize resources for Pennsylvania’s 3.4 million rural residents. In part, it sponsors research projects, collects data on trends in rural Pennsylvania and publishes information and research results about diverse people and communities in rural Pennsylvania.
Unlike other grant-giving organizations, the center does not put out an open call for proposals. Instead, the center chooses topics of importance to the state, then solicits proposals from faculty members at the states’ rural universities. Additionally, researchers have the opportunity to make recommendations for solutions or improvements in the areas they examine.
In previous studies, he has worked with fellow faculty members. In 2011, he conducted a study of economic impact and potential of the Pennsylvania wine industry with James Dombrosky, then an assistant professor of hospitality management at Pitt-Bradford.
In 2016, he and Dr. Stephen Robar, associate professor of political science, reviewed how local municipalities were spending fees gathered and distributed to mitigate the damage to local infrastructure caused by the drilling of unconventional gas wells.
In 2019, Gajanan and Dr. Lisa Fiorentino examined trends in childhood obesity in the state from 2005-2016, examining relationships between obesity rates at the school district level and socio-economic variables such as parental education, income and employment, student test scores and participation in free and reduced-price lunch programs.
Gajanan will work on his current project while on sabbatical this fall, with plans to submit his final results in April of 2023.
Gajanan is not the only connection to the Center. Richard Esch, president of Pitt-Bradford and the University of Pittsburgh at Titusville, is a member of the center’s board of directors.