Colorado leaders warn of the risks of a COVID slide as school enrollment lags

With the deadline looming for school districts across Colorado to count their students, state and education leaders put out a call to parents and guardians Tuesday in hopes of finding the thousands of kids at risk of falling behind academically.

While the state does not yet have 2020-21 enrollment figures, districts have begun to notice significant declines. Denver Public Schools — the state’s largest district with more than 93,000 students — expects a 1% to 2% decrease in enrollment this year when it turns in its final numbers Thursday, Superintendent Susana Cordova said.

“We definitely anticipated we’d have fewer kids this year than we had had in the past,” she said. “What we are finding right now, though, is that the numbers are lower everywhere, so it’s not a case of kids leaving Denver, for example, and going to Jeffco or Cherry Creek.”

Aurora Public Schools’ 2020-21 enrollment is down about 5%, or 1,664 students, compared to last academic year, according to district spokesman Corey Christiansen.

Gov. Jared Polis urged families to register their children in local schools, even if the format being offered amid the pandemic isn’t ideal. According to the Colorado Department of Education, about 73% of school districts were offering an in-person learning option as of mid-September, although the majority were small and rural districts that accounted for just 37% of students in the state.

In a recent meeting with the Colorado House Education Committee, commissioner of education Katy Anthes warned of what she called the COVID slide, “an achievement slide as well as an opportunity slide” among students who aren’t engaging in their classes due to the pandemic.

Regardless of whether parents don’t feel comfortable sending their kids back in-person yet or are dissatisfied with remote learning, it’s imperative that children continue their education somehow, Polis said — especially given how abruptly the spring semester ended.

“Our schools and school districts are already working hard to catch students up, and that’s impossible to do if students are not enrolled and attending some form of school, whether it’s online or in person,” Polis said. “What we’re worried about is kids who aren’t doing either.”

Declines in enrollment are not unique to Colorado. According to USA Today, districts nationwide have reported fewer students returning to public schools. Polis said he expects some parents are homeschooling their kids, but he cautioned them to think long term.

“Don’t think you’re homeschooling because you’re giving your kid a book and leaving them alone all day,” he said. “Your kid will likely go back to school in the future and don’t want them to have a major deficit when they do.”

Lower student counts have implications for schools’ finances, too, because districts receive funding based on their per-pupil tally annually on Oct. 1. For this academic year, the average allocation is projected to be $8,480 per student. When students leave a district, the money goes with them.

Polis announced Tuesday that the state has placed 40 new AmeriCorps members in some of the highest-needs schools around the state to help families get their children enrolled and engaged in school.

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