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Valerie Stumpf teaches third grade remotely from her classroom at Letford Elementary in Johnstown on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Stumpf said she prefers her classroom to teaching from home, mainly because her internet connection slows down when she and her daughters are online at the same time. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun

Enrollment in Colorado public schools dropped by close to 30,000 students this school year — the first year-to-year decrease the state’s public school system has reported in more than 30 years.

Impacts of the pandemic drove enrollment numbers down, according to the Colorado Department of Education, which released preliminary enrollment figures on Tuesday morning after counting students in October.

The overall drop in enrollment equates to a 3.3% decrease, with some of Colorado’s 178 school districts suffering dips of nearly 10% from enrollment during the 2019-20 school year. That could have serious consequences for the state’s public education system and districts budgets, which are largely determined by pupil counts, said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project.

Depending on how the legislature decides to fund education during the next lawmaking session, districts could suffer significantly.

“It could be devastating if they make a reduction,” Rainey said. “There is no way that school districts could absorb that kind of cut.”

There are 883,281 students enrolled in preschool through 12th grade this school year. About 140 districts reported a drop in enrollment,  while the rest of the state’s 178 districts experienced an enrollment surge.

Many of the districts that reported the steepest enrollment declines are those with the largest student populations in the state. Douglas County School District’s census dropped 4,326 to 62,979 students. However, the loss of nearly 1,400 of those students was due to the closure of Hope Online Learning Academy — at the elementary school level — and the transition of Ascent Classical Academy in Lone Tree out of the district, said district spokeswoman Paula Hans.

Colorado’s largest school district, Denver Public Schools, counted 89,061 students this fall, down 3,051 from last year’s October count.

Colorado Springs School District 11’s enrollment fell by the largest percentage — 8.2%. The district has 23,885 students enrolled this fall, down 2,155 from last year.

And while white students represented the highest enrollment change in raw numbers — public schools educated 19,721 fewer white students this fall compared to last year — American Indian students accounted for the highest percentage drop in enrollment at 5.8%.

Enrollment among Colorado’s earliest learners took the biggest hit this school year, with more than 8,000 fewer students in preschool — a 23.3% drop — and close to 5,800 fewer kindergartners, representing a 9.1% decrease. Additionally, some 13,800 fewer students in grades 1-5 were reported this fall, equal to a dip of 4.2%.

Esperanza Raimirez works on a laptop in a classroom in Newlon Elementary School on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. The school is one of 55 Discovery Link sites that Denver Public Schools set up so that students have a place to participate in remote learning. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer for the Colorado Department of Education, attributes the changes in preschool and kindergarten enrollments to the decision by many Colorado parents to delay enrolling their kids by a year, taking a wait-and-see approach to how the pandemic might continue to disrupt schooling.

The decrease in public school enrollment doesn’t come as a surprise to CDE’s Okes.

“I think this is consistent with what we were hearing anecdotally throughout the beginning of the school year from districts, that they were seeing a decrease in enrollment, especially in those younger grades,” Okes said.

Part of the enrollment decline is influenced by a rising number of families choosing to homeschool their children because of the pandemic. The number of students who are being homeschooled this year doubled to 15,773 this year from 7,880 in 2019, CDE reported.

Another major change involved the shift of students to online schooling. More than 32,300 students enrolled in online educational programs this year, up 44% from last year. Okes noted that those programs are facilitated through public schools.

The counts released Tuesday are preliminary as districts continue to refine their enrollment numbers, CDE officials said. The department typically releases numbers from its annual October count each January, but made preliminary figures public this year during so many disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Okes said that some districts have already contacted CDE with corrections. But she doesn’t expect any changes to dramatically alter the overall trend of a decrease to enrollment.

Will student counts remain down past the pandemic?

It’s not yet clear if the drop in enrollment is a short-term blip or a long-term trend, but CDE anticipates that the public school system’s student count will increase again within the next few years. Data from communities that have experienced catastrophes like fires, floods and other natural disasters and experienced an enrollment dip as a result have rebounded with student counts in subsequent years, Okes said.

CDE expects a large number of students to return in the future.

“Whether that’s 100% of those students or not, that remains to be seen,” Okes said.

She added that the department projects enrollment will increase next year once vaccinations are more widely available. But schools may not see their numbers fully rebound until fall of 2022.

Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, predicts the drop in enrollment won’t amount to more than a short-term loss for public schools. But he pointed to an underlying long-term trend that influenced this year’s enrollment dip: parents’ pursuit of different options that better meet the needs of their students. The pandemic is accelerating that trend for those families who can afford to consider other schooling options.

“That isn’t a blip,” Schoales said.

He wonders what enrollment projections for next fall look like and believes that how Colorado schools approach classes in January will help shape future enrollment trends. If schools return to in-person learning, he said, that probably “would stop the bleeding.” If schools don’t open back up their classroom doors, he anticipates enrollment will continue to suffer.

All of the enrollment declines could translate to financial struggles for districts, particularly if lawmakers reduce education funding from current levels, said Rainey, of the Colorado School Finance Project.

Cuts to education funding would weigh heavily on districts’ operations. Rainey noted that districts wouldn’t be able to trim their budgets without potentially breaking staff contracts and pulling funds from their reserves — all while trying to manage increasing costs brought on by the pandemic.

Valerie Stumpf teaches third grade remotely from her classroom at Letford Elementary School in Johnstown on Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. Stumpf said she prefers her classroom to teaching from home, mainly because her internet connection slows down when she and her daughters are online at the same time. (Valerie Mosley, Special to the Colorado Sun)

One possible outcome for some districts: a failure to meet payroll. The bulk of districts’ budgets cover salaries and benefits.

“And so trying to then make reductions without breaking contracts is almost impossible unless you have additional dollars that are in reserve and then you’re going to be trying to address it through additional cash resources,” Rainey said.

Depending on what the impact is for each district, she added, “it could be a major problem.”

A Republican-led effort to prevent school districts from losing more state funding could help if it can gain broader support among lawmakers during the next legislative session.

Republicans put forward a bill in the special session earlier this month that proposed holding school districts harmless from the loss in state funding caused by the lower counts. 

Traditionally, as part of the mid-year supplemental budget bills, lawmakers adjust the money that districts receive based on the per pupil numbers. A bill in the special session from Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, would have declared the intent of the General Assembly not to do so.

“Let’s not let school districts suffer more than they have already,” said Rep. Mark Baisley, a Roxborough Park Republican who supported the measure. 

The Democratic-majority in the state House rejected the bill, but some lawmakers expressed interest in renewing the idea when the legislature returns in January.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...