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7 Colorado education stories to watch in 2021

Young boy wearing a mask sits at a desk.
Getting students back into the classroom is a top priority of education leaders and many parents.
Rachel Ellis/The Denver Post

The pandemic threw education into turmoil this year, with families, teachers, and students stretched and challenged as never before. Across the state, tens of thousands of students haven’t set foot in a classroom since March 13. Even school districts that reopened wrestled with major logistical challenges and uncertainty.

The pandemic’s effects will continue to be felt through much of 2021. Will school districts reopen and stay open? How will we address learning loss? Will students from low-income families pursue deferred college dreams?

Here are seven education stories we’ll be watching in 2021.

School reopening

Most Colorado students spent December in remote learning as districts large and small closed their buildings in response to a November surge in cases. The biggest question of 2021 will be whether Colorado school districts can bring students back to the classroom and keep them there.

A reopening task force said school is safe and called for modified quarantine rules to keep more teachers in the classroom, more testing and contact tracing, and basic safety protocols.

But superintendents have also said that when cases in the community rise above a certain threshold — roughly 500 per 100,000 people over a two-week period — quarantines become extremely disruptive and in-person schooling less feasible.

State epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy says that much of Colorado is on track to have schools open in mid-January — if the state avoids a post-Christmas surge.

Testing and accountability

Superintendents are pushing for a suspension of standardized testing this spring. They say tests will be logistically difficult to administer, take away from precious instructional time, and won’t yield valid results.

But doing away with tests requires federal waivers and changes to state law, and many education advocacy groups want the tests to be given. They say they need the data to take stock of learning loss.

A working group agreed that standardized tests should not be used to rate school or teacher performance this year, but could not agree on whether the tests should be administered at all.

Expect this issue to be a topic of conversation at the legislature. Districts are set to give the ACCESS test to English language learners in January, a move that concerns parents and community advocates.

Learning loss

Teachers and students have struggled with online lessons and technological challenges. The challenges have been particularly hard on students with disabilities and those learning English. And then there are the roughly 30,000 missing students who were expected to enroll in school and didn’t.

Addressing these problems will require more than opening school buildings, as many students have enrolled in remote programs due to health concerns.

Education leaders say the school system will need to stretch and change to meet these students’ needs in years. Competency-based models, summer school, and intensive tutoring could help, but addressing learning loss will require flexibility, creativity, and money.

Opportunity

The pandemic forced 2020 graduates to make a difficult decision: Attend college under the worst of circumstances or delay enrollment until after it ends.

Counselors and teachers advocated for students to keep their plans intact, but Colorado higher ed institutions, especially community colleges, saw major enrollment drops, with the biggest decreases among low-income students.

At high-poverty high schools, about 33% fewer students enrolled at college compared to last year. Research shows low-income students have a harder time enrolling and finishing college when they delay admission.

There’s no clear picture as to whether the class of 2020 will head to college next year or what resources will be available to them post-pandemic to accomplish their goals.

Vaccines

The arrival of effective vaccines represents the promise of a return to something resembling normalcy. Advocates hope that includes in-person schooling.

Just before New Year’s, Gov. Jared Polis announced teachers would move up in priority on the vaccination list, with access to the inoculation coming in the first months of 2021 instead of late in the spring.

Previously, school staff and child care workers shared Tier 2 access with a half dozen other categories that collectively cover millions of people and were due to start getting vaccinated in April. With two doses required for full effect, most educators wouldn’t have had immunity until the school year was almost over.

The exact timeline for school staff to be vaccinated still isn’t clear. Polis said local public health agencies will coordinate with employers to set up site-based vaccination clinics, and the rollout is dependent on vaccine supply from the federal government.

Also moving ahead on the priority list: people 70 and older and other frontline essential workers.

Advocates hope that vaccinating teachers and school staff means they’ll feel safer returning to school buildings and fewer staff will have to quarantine due to exposure.

Leadership

Three of the state’s five largest school districts won’t have a permanent superintendent at the beginning of 2021: Denver Public Schools, Jeffco Public Schools, and the Douglas County School District.

The search process will be particularly fraught in Denver Public Schools, where a new school board will be looking for someone aligned with its vision. In their only evaluation of outgoing Superintendent Susana Cordova, board members described their desire for an “aggressive plan to shift the culture away from the shortcomings of the former ‘reform’ narrative.”

Denver board members aim to hire a new superintendent before the fall, and they’ve promised robust community engagement during the search process.

Reading instruction

Even before the pandemic, just 40% of Colorado students performed at grade level on state reading and writing tests. Legislation from 2019 aimed to get Colorado districts, which prize their local authority, to adopt reading curriculum supported by research and for all early elementary teachers to have training in the best practices.

The pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into those plans. Many teachers and district leaders say now is the wrong time to require new training, while advocates say the state has already gone far too long without addressing an issue that is so fundamental to children’s academic success.

The State Board gave teachers an extra six months to complete training, but school district leaders could push the legislature for an even longer extension. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen how much pressure the state will exert on school districts to actually adopt new curriculum, an expensive proposition during a time when budgets are tight.

Reporters Melanie Asmar and Jason Gonzales contributed.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect changes to Colorado’s vaccine priority schedule.

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