Fifteen hundred dollars a month was a small price for Candida Ring to pay to escape the virtual schooling the pandemic had her family stuck in, due to her daughter's medical fragility.

“It was not set up for children of that age,” Ring said of her school district’s online program for younger students. “They wanted them to be totally on the computer and not do anything like writing." 

So she pulled her children from one of Colorado Springs’ largest school districts in favor of home-schooling. Ring and her husband now pay a family friend and former teacher, who had been substitute teaching before the pandemic, $1,500 a month to tutor their four early-elementary students. 

The Ring family’s departure was part of a seismic decline in school enrollment last year that researchers and state officials still are struggling to understand. 

Tens of thousands of Colorado students are missing from this year's school rosters — one of the many ripple effects of the global coronavirus pandemic. A Gazette analysis of data compiled by the Colorado Department of Education shows a decrease of more than 35,000 students this year, a massive fluctuation compared to normal year-to-year student population changes, and the only time statewide enrollment has dropped in 37 years. 

Researchers, school administrators and education policy experts have different theories about what caused the shift. They agree it’s been caused by the pandemic and that there’s not one factor that alone explains it. They say more research will be needed to discover exactly what has happened — and what the long-term consequences will be. 

“It’s something we’re seeing across the country. The numbers are down everywhere,” said Patrick Lane, vice president of policy analysis and research at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a nonprofit that specializes in education policy research. “Nobody seems to have a clear answer why.” 

[Interactive database: Click here to find enrollment data for your local school]

Ring said leaving the school district benefited her four children. Two have special needs, and one has an irretractable seizure disorder. 

“It’s expensive, really expensive for us,” Ring said. “But I have to say, my kids have really almost been doing better with the private teacher because they’re getting one-on-one attention.” 

Her 9-year-old daughter with a learning disability couldn’t read before the pandemic, but has learned since, thanks to the one-on-one attention Ring and her husband pay for her to receive. 

“I had the resources to hire a teacher,” she said. “I don’t know what we would have done if we didn’t. We would have been in trouble.

"I would have been in trouble because I would have been teaching my kids.” 

Declines stoke fears

The plunging enrollment figures have generated fears at the highest levels of state government that families without such resources could see their children fall behind.

In a press conference last September, ahead of "count day" in early October, Gov. Jared Polis urged parents who didn't want their children back in school for pandemic-related reasons to enroll them anyway.

"I know a lot of parents who aren't ready for their kids to go back, but they also don't love the online program," he said. "It is very important. Your kid will likely go back at some point in the future, and you don't want them to have a major deficit if they do." 

He cited research that showed children could suffer losses in lifetime earnings because of pandemic-related learning deficits.

Some families are successful in home-schooling, he said, but warned that it's a "very hard and deliberate thing to do." 

"Don't think you're home schooling because you're giving them a book all day and leaving them at home. It's not something to be taken lightly," he said. 

Many families, of course, didn't have the means to pursue alternatives to online public school offerings, and many others didn't have the means to take advantage of those offerings, as parents worked outside the home or didn't have the wherewithal to provide computers or broadband access.

The small school district of Sheridan, in Englewood, lost 120 students this academic year, said Superintendent Patrick Sandos. Administrators and teachers took to the streets to find out what happened to their students. Wearing masks, they knocked on doors and talked with parents and guardians outside. If no one answered the door, school leaders tried to call parents.

“We tracked some, but we couldn’t track all of them,” Sandos said, which raises the question that still troubles many districts: How many students simply weren't doing school during the pandemic year? 

Historic drop in enrollment

Enrollment data provides details on the historic shift in enrollment during the 2020/2021 school year. 

The state's student population boomed in the mid-1990s, with 2% to 3% annual growth, then continued to grow between 1% and 2% until the past several years, as the student population grew at around 0.5% each year. 

And while the current drop in enrollment, a 3.3% decline from the 2019/2020 school year, is the biggest in a generation, it's concentrated mostly in younger grades.

Public high school enrollment grew similarly to previous years, with a 0.6% increase. Junior high enrollment dropped by 1.9%. First through fifth grade dropped by 4.2%. But preschool and kindergarten enrollment dropped by 14.1%. 

The nosedive in younger student enrollment is not explained by a corresponding shift in the state's actual school age population: In the years when today’s preschool and kindergarten students were born, from 2014 to 2016, Colorado saw an increased number of births and more population growth thanks to those moving in from out of state.  

One prominent theory is that students in the youngest age groups didn’t go missing — rather, their parents opted to delay the start of their formal education due to the pandemic. But nearly 9,000 of last year's 1st through 5th graders are missing from this year's 2nd through 6th grade enrollment. 

Some researchers say home schooling could account for some of the declines, and that private schools likely attracted some of the students missing from public schools, but neither account for all the missing students in the state's data. 

The phenomenon isn’t unique to Colorado. New York City's public schools saw a 4% decline in enrollment. Michigan saw a 3.7% decline. California lost 155,000 students, or a 2.5% enrollment drop. 

School enrollment, particularly among the youngest grades, has dropped off across the country, according to research in other states where this year’s student enrollment figures are available. A study by Bellwether Education Partners estimated that 3 million students have dropped off the nation's rolls this year.  

No clear explanation

Exact student movements, from one school or district to another, for example, aren't compiled in the Colorado Department of Education's publicly available data. 

The state's data related to enrollment declines does show some variation between ethnicities.

The biggest decline, a 5.8% drop, was among Native American students, whose student enrollment figures are relatively low, at about 0.7% of the total student population. The next biggest decline was among white students, with a 4.1% decline. Black, Hispanic and Asian student enrollment each dropped between 2.6% and 2.7%. The same trend is at play for younger students, with a roughly 15-30% bigger decline in white preschool and kindergarten students than Black and Hispanic students, The Gazette's analysis shows. 

But there's no significant difference in the state's data between poorer and wealthier districts.

Rebecca Holmes, the president of the Colorado Education Initiative, a nonprofit that studies education policy, said some students may have moved between districts, depending on when they reopened, for example. 

Holmes suggested two factors at play. First: "redshirting," when families hold their preschool or kindergarten students for a year and delay their academic careers.

Rhonda Haniford, the state education department's associate commissioner for school quality and support, said the agency has “informal, anecdotal" evidence supporting the theory. 

Some parents probably moved students from public schools into private schools, Holmes said, where the schools had more autonomy about staying open or going virtual. But Colorado's private school enrollment dropped statewide as well, with the biggest decline in the youngest grades, just like public schools. Where private schools seem to have bucked the trend is high school enrollment, where enrollments grew by 2.8%, instead of the 0.6% public high school enrollment growth.

The youngest grades saw the biggest decline, Holmes theorized, because it's easier to hold back a younger student than to pull a middle or high school-aged kid out of the classroom for a year. 

“We think a lot of parents were making decisions about what felt best for their families," Haniford said, adding that the state education department doesn't have much insight into private schools. 

Counting who's missing

Michelle Exstrom, the education program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said parents of young kids just entering the system had the most options this year.  

“The youngest learners were affected the most. If they didn’t have to enroll in public school, there’s more choice there,” she said. "Some people opted for other options, like learning pods. That sort of broke along the lines of who was more comfortable with home learning, or who had the means, or who politically already believed in home-schooling, and maybe who thought their school was making bad choices.”  

Enrollment at non-public schools declined by about 6,000 students this year, a bigger percent drop than public schools, but a fraction of the enrollment decline. Like public schools, the biggest drop was in preschool and kindergarten. Colorado collects dropout data and truancy data, but it won’t be available until later in the year because the data collection goes through the end of the school year.

Normally, such data would be a useful tool for researching how the coronavirus pandemic impacted education, Exstrom said. But that data might also come with problems. 

“Counting who’s absent and who’s not has been very confusing and complicated” during the pandemic, Exstrom said. “Whether or not a student is absent for a whole day, or missing because they’re sick but the parent didn’t think they needed to tell the school because of online learning, or getting counted as absent because of tech problems — chronic absenteeism is going to be a huge challenge, because many kids will be considered to be over that limit.” 

Sheridan D-2 is one of Colorado’s poorest districts, as measured by student eligibility for the federal government’s free and reduced lunch program. One in four of the district’s students are identified as homeless under the government’s tracking system. Many parents couldn’t work at home and couldn’t help children with their schoolwork.

Realizing that, Sheridan was among the first of the state’s 178 school districts to reopen with a hybrid teaching format last spring, after mandatory pandemic lockdowns lifted. Up to 80% of kindergarten through 2nd graders participated in-person learning, about half of the 3rd through 8th graders and but only about 40% of high school students, according to Sandos.

The district also compressed a three-year technology plan, to provide every student with an electronic device, into two months, spending $217,000 in federal coronavirus relief money to purchase Chromebooks and internet hot spots for students, he said.

For those who didn’t have internet access, the district stationed school buses equipped with internet hookup in high-impact neighborhoods with apartment complexes to deliver wireless connectivity for students.

Treehouse schoolroom and iPads

Amanda Huber also chose virtual learning for her children. One has severe asthma and reduced pulmonary function.

“My father-in-law works for the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and said it would be best to do virtual for the year, if we can,” said Huber, a stay-at-home mom. “I just felt that by keeping the kids online, it would create space, with schools trying to meet social-distancing needs.”

Huber kept her children “on the books” by enrolling them in their El Paso County school district, but she has done much to supplement the district's online offerings.

“We set up their rooms and alarms to go off when things need to happen,” she said, adding that her children often retreat to their backyard treehouse to work on their iPads.

She started virtual and socially distanced outdoor clubs for her children that allow them to stay connected to their classmates.

“We’ve had a really good year, academically,” she said, adding that distance learning gives her the opportunity to better keep up with what her kids are learning and the effort they're putting into school.

“At school, most work is turned in and you never see it again.”

Huber’s family is fortunate, she acknowledged: They had the resources to turn what could have been a “lost” school year into a year of consistency and academic growth.

“I totally understand how other families want and need to be there in person," she said.

Districts short on answers

Districts that administer Colorado's schools don't have all of the issues associated with missing students figured out either, officials say.

Colorado's largest public school districts, in Denver and Jefferson and Douglas counties, lost more than 3,000 students, almost 4,000 students and more than 4,300 students, respectively.

"If you had young kids who were very early in elementary school, (some parents) were uncomfortable sending them in the fall," said Chuck Carpenter, the chief financial officer for Denver Public Schools. "Most people still sent their kids to school, but a notable percentage looked for other options, maybe delay and wait for next year."

Colorado Springs' District 11's largest grade drop was at the kindergarten level, district spokeswoman Devra Ashby said in December, after preliminary count day numbers were released by the state. The district was down nearly 850 kindergarten enrollments, she said.

At a September school board meeting ahead of count day, District 11 Superintendent Michael Thomas warned that the Pikes Peak region could be down as many as 5,000 students, a soft estimate based on informal conversations with area superintendents.

"Our families are making decisions to not be in school, and it could be private schools, micro-schools, home-schools," Thomas said. "Five thousand in this region is a lot. I just don't believe there are enough micro-schools, charter schools to hold 5,000 students."

Denver schools are expecting at least some of the missing students to turn up this coming school year.

"I think this is a blip," said Carpenter of this school year's downturn in enrollment. "I think they'll be back in school in the next year."

Haniford, the state education department's associate commissioner, said the agency's officials expect a surge of early elementary grade students in the fall.

The state's compulsory attendance law, which mandates education beginning at age 6, will likely help, she said.

“Hopefully, we’ll get them back in the fall,” said Sandos of Sheridan D-2, which this past week returned to full-time in-person learning in classrooms.

The students are excited to be back in class, the superintendent said. 

“There’s something magical about the relationship between the teacher and student."

The Gazette's Debbie Kelley contributed to this report.

Load comments