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Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday pleaded with Colorado parents to enroll their children in school, saying that districts have seen declines in the number of kids signed up for classes during the coronavirus crisis, especially among younger grades.

“Your kid will return to school someday,” Polis said at a coronavirus briefing with reporters at the governor’s mansion in downtown Denver. “You don’t want them to be behind.”

Polis said the state doesn’t have specific data showing how large the declines are in enrollment. It’s anecdotal thus far, but widespread.

“There are certainly more than usual.” Polis said

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Polis said he fears some Colorado parents are trying to home school their kids without proper planning and curriculum.

“Don’t just think you’re home-schooling because you’re giving your kid a book all day and leaving them at home,” Polis said. “… It’s not something to be taken lightly.”

The governor said that parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their kids back to school for in-person learning should at least enroll them in an online program. That will give children access to social interaction with their peers as well as counseling, should they need it.

Polis referenced Colorado’s open enrollment system, in which families can enroll their students in districts outside their home district. He highlighted the breadth of schooling options available to families. In August, Polis said he anticipated a spike in families using open enrollment, which in the past has been limited by geography. Now, with many districts offering remote learning, that barrier has been removed.

“We cannot let our children’s education become a casualty of this pandemic,” said Katy Anthes, who leads the Colorado Department of Education.

One of the big fears is that students won’t be enrolled by Colorado’s student count day, which this year is on Thursday. The official count typically takes place on Oct. 1 each year, but there is also an 11-day count window, which consists of the count day, along with the five days before and after.

The period helps determine how much state funding each district gets. Funding is heavily influenced by each district’s student count.

“Now is the last change for parents to enroll their kids for the districts to be able to receive the resources” they need to educate them, Polis said. He added that if Colorado has much lower enrollment during this year’s count day, CDE will continue dispersing dollars under the state’s school finance formula.

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters after a roundtable discussion about education during coronavirus. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“CDE has the legal responsibility to administer the School Finance Act as written, and they will do a great job doing that, obviously using the maximum flexibility they have under that law to help where they can,” Polis said.

Anthes said parents really should enroll their children before Thursday. But she said it’s important that they enroll their students at any point, preferably as soon as possible.

Rico Munn, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, said there are thousands of fewer students enrolled in classes this year in the Denver metro area as well.

“That’s an incredibly life-changing impact for our youngest kids,” Munn said.

It’s part of a broader trend across the state and country, Munn said, with “a sharp decline in enrollment.”

Munn said that a lot of kids are in need right now, both psychologically and economically. Colorado’s public school system can’t step in to help unless those children are enrolled in classes.

“We need you to come and connect and enroll with us,” he said.

He also pointed to kids suffering long-term consequences from a lack of engagement in school amid the pandemic, including significant learning loss in younger students. Across the country, students are experiencing a learning loss impact of anywhere between three months and two years, with outsized effects on vulnerable students.

“Public school educators are here with the resources to support you and your family,” Munn said. “In order for that to happen, we need you to enroll your kids, be it online or in person.”

The potential learning loss for Colorado’s highest needs students, including kids learning English, kids with special needs and those who are low income, “can have implications for years to come,” Polis said, with the possibility of COVID-19-related learning gaps significantly jeopardizing their lifetime earnings.

Younger students are particularly at risk, with learning loss greatest in preschool through third grade, he said.

Polis joined Anthes and Munn in urging entire communities to step up and help ensure students are learning this school year. They encouraged employers to provide flexibility to their employees who are parents and nudged community organizations and community members who are interacting with families to ask them if their kids are enrolled in school and help connect them to their local school district.

“Let’s join together in supporting our parents, our families and our educators in making sure every student is connected to learning and supports,” Anthes said.

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