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Simla Elementary School kindergarteners head to the gym at the Big Sandy School on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. Enrollment in kindergarten is down during the 2020-21 school year, with many parents redshirting their children because of the pandemic. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Alamosa School District classrooms are typically full, with about 200 kindergarteners each school year. But that number dropped to 142 this fall.

Many of Colorado’s 178 school districts saw a similar enrollment dip. The kindergarten count statewide dropped 8.5% this school year, meaning that thousands of kids who were on track to start kindergarten this school year are sitting out. In many cases, those students are being redshirted by parents and caregivers who want to enroll them in school once all the uncertainty created by COVID-19 has passed.

Thousands more who would have entered preschool this academic year have also remained on the sidelines.

The declines are part of a broader drop in enrollment across elementary and secondary grades in Colorado schools — the first year-to-year dip in enrollment reported in more than 30 years, one totaling nearly 30,000 students. That’s equal to a 3.3% decrease.

In the short term, depending on how the legislature opts to fund education during the next lawmaking session, that drop could strain districts’ budgets, which are largely influenced by pupil counts. It also raises the possibility of a bulge of young learners for the 2021-22 school year — after the state has already set funding for that school year based on lower pupil counts. State projections anticipate that preschool and K-12 public school enrollment numbers will spring back next fall.

More kids, of course, means more teachers will be needed to staff classrooms, but schools could also cope with the influx of students by increasing class sizes.

Neither prospect is ideal. 

Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the nonprofit Colorado Children’s Campaign, said smaller class sizes better support children’s academic progress.

Simla Elementary School kindergarten teacher Holly Koehn works with student Aiva Thompson at the Big Sandy School on Monday, Feb. 25, 2019. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But districts like Alamosa, which has close to 2,150 students, don’t have any wiggle room in their budgets to hire more staff after grappling with significant budget cuts this year and looking at a potentially greater hit to their budgets next year.

“That’s what makes it really scary,” said Marsha Cody, Alamosa’s interim superintendent.

The district tries to keep kindergarten classes “as small as possible,” Cody said, with 18 students in one class at most, though 15 or 16 is optimal — if the district can afford it.

“That’s the tricky part,” she said.

The district will open up registration early in the summer as it did this past summer, Cody said. Staffing requirements will be hard to nail down until the district has some of those registration numbers in hand and can understand how many students will pursue in-person learning and how many will enroll in online school. Alamosa may have to shift staff around rather than hire additional personnel, Cody said, but it will depend on the number of students wanting in-person classes.

“That’ll be a big question mark coming into the next school year,” she said.

Lawmakers are working to spare districts from budget cuts driven by lower school enrollments, recognizing that schools have been shouldering more responsibilities during the pandemic. Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and the next chair of the Senate Education Committee, plans to introduce a bill during the coming legislative session seeking to protect districts from losing state funding based on lower enrollments counted in October.

If funding was set based on the current student counts and local property tax revenue, Colorado districts would receive $83 million less in state funding for the current school year. Now is not the time to pare back school funding, Zenzinger said.

She said lawmakers should send a signal to districts that they understand that this has been “the most challenging year in public school history and we’re not going to claw back funds.”

Zenzinger is also confident that enrollment numbers will rebound a bit in January as districts statewide work to get kids back to in-person learning. Opening classroom doors back up to students will require more resources, and Zenzinger sees districts already struggling with how to operate.

“Staffing concerns are definitely at the all-time critical breaking point,” she said.

State funding for preschool students is a separate agenda item for lawmakers. Jaeger, of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, worries that the legislature could look at this year’s drop in enrollment and opt to fund fewer preschool slots next fall than the 29,360 slots it funded for this school year. He hopes that lawmakers will realize this year was an anomaly. Preschool enrollment was trending up before the pandemic, he said.

Zenzinger is optimistic that the legislature will at least maintain that number of slots for the next school year. She would prefer to increase funding to boost the number of preschool and kindergarten slots available because of the learning losses students are facing this year, but said it may be hard to swing in light of the state’s budget constraints.

More pressure on educators to help kids at different starting lines

As stressed as districts are about the logistical challenges in the 2021-22 school year, educators are generally more concerned about how they’ll meet the sprawling needs of young learners suffering pandemic trauma. 

How prepared kids are for preschool and kindergarten varies widely in the best of times. Pandemic-related disruptions this year will only amplify those differences.

“If the range, the spectrum of academic and cognitive and social-emotional development that children have in a classroom is that much wider,” Jaeger said, “I think it’s going to create a lot of pressure on our educators.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis stands with lawmakers, education advocates and students to announce legislation for full-day kindergarten on March 22, 2019. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

Among those educators is Jaclyn Ballesteros, a lead teacher at KIPP Northeast Elementary School in Denver, who sees social-emotional learning as the most critical component of students’ preschool experiences.

“It’s not going to be as developed, and that’s what I’m very worried about for my babies,” particularly for the next school year, Ballesteros said.

The pace of academics already has been slowed by remote learning, she said, but teachers will likely have to slow that pace further. Ballesteros said preschool students often need time to adjust to the classroom and “understand that school is a safe place” before they can begin to learn.

Ballesteros plans to listen to her students and observe them as she tries to help them get into the swing of school. But she also is looking to policymakers and school leaders to ensure students have access to the variety of services that they need — an important stepping stone to learning.

“With everything going on,” she said, “I think there has to be a huge reframing of what support is going to look like for this generation of students.”

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...