How do you count the number of students in your school or district when they’re not physically in your classrooms?
It’s a tricky question for Colorado school districts to answer, but it’s an important one: A district’s student count is the primary factor in determining how much state funding they receive.
The Colorado Department of Education conducts an October pupil count each fall to establish how many students are attending classes in each of the state’s 178 school districts. In a typical school year, it is largely a matter of counting. This year, as the coronavirus has kept many districts conducting fall classes remotely, it will be more a matter of converting and then counting.
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CDE has revised the process districts follow for its annual October count with more flexibility for those starting the school year remotely or using a hybrid approach. While some districts have expressed concerns about declining enrollment translating to a dip in their funding, CDE will help soften the blow by using an averaging provision that takes into account a district’s enrollment for recent years.
Student enrollment figures are always fluid, perhaps more so this school year as families worried about COVID-19 explore options outside their home district.
Geography has typically posed a barrier to students who live in one part of the state and want to enroll in a district in another. But remote learning has made outside districts more accessible. Gov. Jared Polis and some education advocates and state lawmakers have anticipated a jump in the number of families using Colorado’s open-enrollment process.
The shuffling of students could add to the financial distress districts are already shouldering with rising costs because of the coronavirus and funding cuts spurred by the economic downturn that has resulted from the pandemic. If a student leaves one district for another before the October count, the money follows him or her to the new district.
An existing averaging mechanism could help those districts where enrollment has fallen. CDE will determine funding for a district on the decline by averaging the funded-pupil count from the past two, three, four or five years — whichever average generates the highest count, CDE Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Okes said.
Averaging will potentially be applied more broadly this year, Okes said.
During a typical school year, the official count takes place on Oct. 1, unless that date is on a weekend or a major holiday. But there is also an 11-day count window, which consists of the count day, along with the five days before and after. The student count process extends beyond that window, starting on the first day of school and extending 30 days past the official count day, Okes said.
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Typically, for a student to be eligible for state funding in a district, they must be enrolled and in attendance as of the count day, either full time or part time depending on how many hours are in their class schedule. Generally, a full-time schedule for a high school student translates to five classes, Okes said.
If a student is in attendance on Oct. 1 and is in five classes, they meet full-time status, which provides their district a designated amount of funding. If a student is not present on count day, the process becomes slightly more complicated. Okes said an absent student must have established attendance during the school year and must resume attendance within 30 days. That means the student has to have been enrolled in school and have attended sometime between the first day of school and Sept. 30, right before the count date. If they miss school on Oct. 1, they must resume attendance within the next 30 days, Okes said.
So if a student is in school sometime in August or September but not on Oct. 1, so long as they return sometime in October, they qualify for a district’s student count.
This fall, the process will become a little less uniform from district to district. A local board of education can define remote learning as part of its district’s educational process, and CDE is asking districts to detail what remote learning looks like for their students. The department is also requiring districts who are engaged in remote learning to outline how they’re measuring attendance, Okes said, which could include a student logging into their online platform, submitting an assignment through Google docs, calling or emailing a teacher with a question, or turning in a paper packet.
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Districts in remote-learning mode can also incorporate an “equivalency statement” in the information they submit to CDE to explain how the work conducted remotely counts for the same amount of credit as a traditional in-person class would, she said.
Okes said CDE is confident it can capture an accurate count of students across Colorado school districts.
Planning for the worst but remaining optimistic
One of the districts that could stand to benefit from an average is Custer County School District C-1 in Westcliffe, where enrollment has dropped by about 20 students from the last school year, Superintendent Mike McFalls said. Students are split between in-person and remote learning, with the majority in classrooms. About 30 kids are doing their schoolwork through Colorado Digital Learning Solutions, or CDLS, though those students are still considered part of the district.
About 60 kids withdrew from the district to pursue their education elsewhere, while some new students have joined the district. Last year enrollment in preschool through 12th grade totaled 375 students, compared with about 355 this school year. McFalls said some families are waiting to see what happens with the virus before committing to rejoining the district and he expects that some families who have moved to online learning will return to classrooms once they feel it’s safe.
For in-person students, the Custer County district will take attendance once each morning as it has in the past.
About 150 school districts accounting for about 16,000 students have registered with CDLS, a nonprofit that has a statewide contract to provide supplemental classwork for students. Attendance for those students can be measured in the way a district chooses. The organization provides districts real-time access to student data, including minutes students spent engaged in online learning and days they logged in, but it leaves the decision of how to define attendance up to districts, Executive Director Dan Morris said.
“It comes back to each individual district on how they want to monitor that and define that,” Morris said.
McFalls isn’t terribly concerned about his district’s student count lagging behind last year’s, especially since the district can average its count with other years.
His district’s main job is to provide a quality education in a safe environment “no matter what,” he said, and that remains his top focus. He’s optimistic that his district can stay the course over the next two years through funding uncertainty. His budget is in good shape for this year, to the extent that his district awarded modest pay raises. And there’s a good chance that local revenue in his district will be reliable for the next year as people are buying houses and properties in Custer County, according to conversations he’s had with the local tax assessor and other officials.
Still, he’s paying attention and making plans for the worst. But in the meantime, he aims to ensure that school can be in person for as long as possible as safely as possible.
“Every day is a gift,” McFalls said.