COVID has left an indelible mark on the world of education, shining a light on preexisting inequities and worsening them all the while, and creating new gaps and issues for which there's no quick fix or vaccine.
Education in the Pikes Peak region was already shifting ahead of the introduction of the 2019 novel coronavirus to the state early last year. Academy District 20 had just overtaken Colorado Springs District 11 as the largest in the region. Final 2020-2021 enrollment numbers, released by the state education department in January, showed that Academy maintained its status as the area's largest district, with Falcon overtaking District 11 as No. 2, by just under 100 students.
Falcon experienced a gain in students — 94 — in a year during which all other Pikes Peak region schools (save Hanover District 28, which gained five students) and schools across the state saw enrollment drop.
Falcon's preliminary enrollment figure, released in December, "affirms current projections of population growth, keeping our district on our pace of being one of the most rapidly growing districts in the state of Colorado," Falcon's Brett Ridgway, chief business officer for the district, told The Gazette in December. The district had already known that "continued growth will, inevitably, make District 49 the largest district in the region," he added.
This school year Colorado public schools experienced the first decrease in year-to-year enrollment since 1988. That drop was fueled by the pandemic, state education officials said. Enrollment this fall was down 3.3% over the previous year statewide, with more than 30,000 fewer students enrolled in preschool through 12th grade. Preschool experienced a 23% drop, and kindergarten experienced a 9% drop, officials said. Grades 1 through 5 experienced a cumulative 4% drop in enrollment.
The number of homeschool students doubled this year, to 15,773. The number of students enrolled in online programs increased by 434% over last year, they said.
Douglas County, Jefferson County, Denver Public Schools, Aurora Public Schools and Colorado Springs' District 11 experienced the largest drop in students from last year, with Douglas County losing the most — 4,326 — and District 11 losing the fifth most — 2,155.
District 11 believes it mirrors the state in that its "largest grade drop was at the kindergarten level," said Devra Ashby, district spokeswoman, in December. The district is down nearly 850 kindergarten enrollments.
Before the pandemic the district was "moving in a whole new direction with a new strategic plan, new equity policy and equity team, a new facilities master plan, and a new academic master plan, adding a whole menu of choice options for families," she said. "Although D-11 has been declining for a while now, with these new efforts we managed to slow the projected loss a year and a half ago by 300 students, which is a positive sign."
This year, "we do believe many families chose to homeschool, not knowing the uncertainty this school year would provide," she said. The district was up 288 homeschool enrollments this year as of December.
The Pikes Peak region's loss of thousands of students will lead to a loss of millions of dollars in funding. District 11 expects to take a $3.4 million hit, Ashby said in December, but will not have to adjust its budget "due to salary and benefit savings from positions not hired due to pandemic, decreased enrollment or hard-to-fill positions."
Academy District 20 saw the second-steepest decline in the region, losing nearly 900 students — equating to a financial loss of roughly $3.8 million, spokeswoman Allison Cortez said in December. The district has a "healthy reserve" to cover losses and is "committed to keeping any needed budgetary reductions as far away from our classrooms as possible," she said.
Widefield School District 3 took the third largest hit in the region, with a loss of 500 students. The financial impact is "in excess of $1.5 million," district spokeswoman Samantha Briggs said in December.
Other Pikes Peak region school districts saw a decline of anywhere from 15 to 341 students.
Where do schools go from here? Plans include boosting enrollment, eliminating inequities exacerbated by the pandemic and bridging educational gaps that existed before the pandemic, as well as ones that occurred due to it.
And, some say, there are more immediate concerns, such as first ensuring children are stable socially and emotionally, and helping high school seniors who may not be on track to graduate this spring due to difficulty adapting to online learning.
Cheyenne Mountain District 12 Superintendent Walt Cooper said his district is in the process of "determining what additional instruction/interventions look like for summer school, and also during next school year, when we anticipate all students to be back full time under normal, or near normal, conditions."
Ashby said District 11 is "planning to hold extended education after our traditional school year ends in May." And Widefield District 3 is planning "several unique summer opportunities," spokeswoman Samantha Briggs said. The districts were looking toward federal funds to cover the costs.
Manitou District 14, too, is examining "credit recovery and summer learning opportunities," Superintendent Elizabeth Domangue said. And Academy is "working on possible after school learning opportunities, as well as summer options" to help students catch up, Cortez said.
Local districts have opened their choice enrollment windows, hoping to boost their rosters, and funding along with it.
But there's a larger concern, Cortez said.
“While the percentage of students lost this year is shocking, the more pressing concern is ensuring these students are not lost forever, that their educational journey has only taken a temporary detour and we can get them back on track," she said in December.
“We know this is a unique year and families needed to do what was best for them. But, we must now connect with these families and students and encourage them to reengage and reenroll. Our schools are a safe place, and the education of Colorado’s students cannot be a causality of this pandemic.”