COLORADO, USA — For the first time in more than three decades, Colorado public schools posted a decrease in year-to-year enrollment in large part due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) announced.
The last time the state saw a decrease in pupil enrollment was the fall of 1988.
CDE released preliminary data from its annual count which occurs in October of each year. The data was released earlier than usual, according to CDE, due to "intense interest" surrounding student enrollment as schools worked to keep students and staff safe while continuing education during the pandemic. The final results are expected by the middle of next month.
Overall, Colorado schools posted an estimated 3.3% decrease in enrollment for the fall of 2020 when compared to 2019, with 29,942 fewer students in preschool through 12th grade.
The preliminary figures show the total statewide enrollment for preschool to 12th grade was 883,281 when students were counted in October.
School and state leaders expected a drop, and have raised concerns about the problem for months. Now, they are bracing for the financial impact that will follow.
"One of the major calculations for the funding formula is the number of students that are enrolled," explained Jennifer Okes, the chief operating officer for CDE. Okes explained, for districts with declining enrollment, the funding formula has a provision that will use the average of the past few years, rather than just one current year.
"What that provision really does is soften the blow, so to speak," Okes said. "For the financial impact associated with fewer students."
She said many of the districts who have never had the provision initiated before may see it used now due to the drop in enrollment.
The largest decreases in the preliminary count were in earlier grades with 8,009 fewer students in preschool for a 23.3% drop and 5,798 fewer kindergartners for a 9.1% decrease.
An estimated 13,802 fewer first through fifth graders were counted in Colorado schools in 2020 compared to 2019, which is a 4.2% drop.
"We think what's happening there is, parents are weighing whether they should start students in preschool or kindergarten this year or wait to start those kids next year," Okes explained.
"In any given year, that’s a decision a parent may make for their students. This year it appears more parents decided to wait and have students enrolled next year."
Among races and ethnicities, white students had the highest number change in the preliminary count with 19,721 fewer students in 2020 compared to 2019, a 4.1% decline. American Indian or Alaska native had the highest percent drop with 5.8% fewer students in 2020 than in 2019.
The number of students reported as homeschooled doubled with 15,773 students counted this fall compared to 7,880 in 2019, the data shows.
A total of 32,321 students registered in online educational programs this year - 9,873 more students than in 2019 or a 44% increase.
Approximately 141 of the state’s 178 school districts reported drops in enrollment with nearly 40 districts reporting increasing enrollment, according to the preliminary data.
The largest school districts in the state saw the biggest enrollment decreases. The Douglas County School District saw a 6.4% decrease in enrollment and was followed by Jefferson County Schools, Denver Public Schools, and Aurora Public Schools (APS).
Enrollment numbers were both discussed during a media call with Denver-area superintendents Tuesday. APS Superintendent Rico Munn said the drop in students, in addition to pandemic-related expenses will cause significant impacts on budgets.
"We want to make sure state and federal legislators keep in mind a need to address those things, respond to issues of pandemic, and support our long-term funding needs," he said. "We want to ask our federal and state partners and leaders to make sure they’re investing in our students and in the future of public education."