Millions of dollars for Pikes Peak region school districts are on the line Thursday as Colorado students show up — virtually, in person or not at all — for “count day,” when schools tally their students for the state’s per-pupil funding.
Count day comes on the heels of the state’s issuance of new guidance for schools with potential or confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks — guidelines that suggest schools can delay quarantining those exposed to less probable coronavirus cases while awaiting test results.
Under the new guidance designed to “minimize disruptions to in-person learning in cases where there is a reasonable chance the ill student or teachers does not have COVID-19,” released Tuesday, if a symptomatic student or employee doesn’t yet have a test result, close contacts may continue in-person learning for four days, then quarantine for the remainder of the two-week period, if necessary.
The guidance “allows for some time to assess the situation and, ideally, to get the student or teacher tested before making the decision to quarantine contacts,” the state’s Emergency Operations Center said in a statement to The Gazette. “For someone who is known to have COVID-19, or has a very high chance of being positive, the class or contacts would need to quarantine immediately.”
A predicted loss of 900 students in Academy District 20, the Pikes Peak region’s largest school district, could result in a nearly $7 million loss in state funding, potentially necessitating the usage of reserve dollars or budget changes, district spokeswoman Allison Cortez told The Gazette this week.
“That said, when facing funding challenges, our priority has always been and will continue to be keeping cuts as far away from the classroom, student programming, staff salaries, and jobs as possible,” she said.
The area’s second largest school district, Colorado Springs District 11, could take the biggest hit, regionally. At a Board of Education meeting last week, Superintendent Michael Thomas said the district could be down as many as 1,500 students, according to estimates, and that the Pikes Peak region could be down about 5,000 students.
“Our families are making decisions to not be in school, and it could be private schools, microschools, home schools,” Thomas said. “Five thousand in this region is a lot. I just don’t believe there are enough microschools, charter schools … to hold 5,000 students.”
The estimate, a “very soft number,” was based on informal conversations with area superintendents, district spokeswoman Devra Ashby said.
The district did not provide an estimate of state funding that could be lost due to reduced enrollment. However, at the meeting last week, Thomas spoke of the potential need to “start shifting staff to accommodate barriers or challenges” and “redeploy staff to meet needs in the system.”
Widefield School District 3 is down about 350 students after expecting to be up about 100 this year. The loss could result in nearly a $3 million funding cut, district spokeswoman Samantha Briggs said.
It will be a count day like none before, one on which districts will be allowed to count students attending virtual schools based on a record of log-in or work completed online.
The day comes just two days after Gov. Jared Polis urged Coloradans to enroll their students in school, citing concerns over sharp declines in enrollment nationwide and in Colorado.
“It’s important that kids are enrolled and engaged in school every day,” Polis said Tuesday, acknowledging that “when the state transitioned to online learning last year, it really took everybody by surprise.”
“This year, families are in a different place,” he noted. “Their kids are back in school; they’re fine.”
The governor urged families that don’t want their children back in school — for reasons ranging from a child’s medical condition to a family member’s higher risk — to “enroll your kid in the school and at least begin the online program.”
“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” their district is offering, Polis said, urging those parents to enroll their child in the online program of another district they might feel is doing a better job.
But some district-run online programs aren’t working, some local families say.
Ime Lopez, a lawyer and single mother of two who is keeping her kids home this school year due to their asthma, said she pulled her students from District 20’s online school, Journey K8, citing a lack of interaction with teachers and engaging curriculum, as well as a complicated online platform with broken links.
Hiccups in the platform cause “a four-hour day to become a 10-hour day for schooling, sitting in front of the computer the whole time,” Lopez said Monday, adding that her second-grade daughter had received her first ever F grades in online learning.
She recently filed a notice of intent to home-school with the district, opting to use a more interactive online program and to pay for tutoring, she said.
Fellow District 20 parent Candida Ring said three of her four children are attending online through Journey K8 in a bid to keep their fourth child, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder, well. She has experienced frustrations similar to Lopez.
She has yet to look at her children’s grades “because I can’t even get through the lessons,” she said. “I’m guessing they’re getting Fs.”
To fill in the gaps, she and her husband have hired a retired special education teacher to teach their children three days a week.
“We have the resources, but a lot of families don’t,” she said, adding that she’s paying about $1,500 a month.
Their concerns echo those of other some parents in the district and other area districts, expressed at school board meetings and in Facebook groups.
“Growing this program from a few hundred to several thousand — at warp speed — meant there would likely be bumps in the road,” D-20’s Cortez said. “However, we are committed to continual improvement and encourage our families to communicate with us about what is, and isn’t, working.”
“In some situations families may have chosen online and now realize this is not the best environment for their child,” she said, adding that online students in kindergarten through eighth grade have the opportunity to transition to in-person learning at the end of the quarter on Wednesday.