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Polis on 1000s of Colorado Kids "Lost" During COVID-19 Pandemic

Governor Jared Polis during a September 25 visit to the Colorado National Monument near Fruita.
Governor Jared Polis during a September 25 visit to the Colorado National Monument near Fruita.

The theme of Governor Jared Polis's September 29 update on Colorado's fight against COVID-19 was what he referred to as "lost children" — kids who aren't going to school in person or participating in remote education efforts, and may be at risk of suffering major learning shortfalls as a result.

"This shouldn't be politicized. It should be personalized," Polis stressed. "Many kids are living with grandparents or others who are medically vulnerable — or online works well for them. But what we're worried about are kids who aren't doing either online or in-person [learning]. And other than parents willing to take on the rigors of home schooling, including the social aspect, they need to enroll their kids."

Before getting to these subjects, Polis offered the latest information about five wildfires burning in the state, as well as the Mullen fire in southern Wyoming that is also impacting air quality in Colorado. He noted that many of the effects of poor air, including coughing and shortness of breath, are similar to COVID-19 symptoms. With this in mind, he encouraged anyone experiencing these issues to get tested for the novel coronavirus, so they can know for certain that their condition was prompted by smoke and not an infection that would require them to quarantine.

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Next, Polis unveiled some fresh data about the disease: 70,025 cases, 535 new positive cases today and an unspecified rise in hospitalizations over the past week. However, he stressed that the case count has started to "level off" in recent days, and he hopes that an increase in testing will help bring down the positivity rate, which has been climbing, too.

At that point, he steered the conversation toward education with the assistance of several guests: Colorado Commissioner of Education Dr. Katy Anthes, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn and Dr. Chris Rogers, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical director of child and adolescent services at the Medical Center of Aurora, as well as president of the Colorado Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Society.

Munn mentioned "a sharp decline in enrollment, particularly of our youngest learners" — students who fall into the kindergarten-to-third-grade age range. Learning losses being seen across the country during the pandemic have been estimated at "anywhere from three months to two years," he pointed out, with elementary school students often suffering the largest academic deficits. Although the speakers didn't have hard numbers about how many kids are currently disconnected from schools, Munn believes the total encompasses "thousands in the metro area" who are missing out on important educational opportunities, as well as the chance to benefit from support services, including mental health care, counseling, food provision and more.

Another complication: Thursday, October 1, is designated as "count day," when the number of students in attendance at schools helps establish state funding for the remainder of the academic year.

Anthes and others stressed that flexibility will be applied to these statistics based on protocols established at the local and state level, so that schools are given the maximum amount of credit for the presence of kids both in classrooms and in front of computer screens at home. They said their main focus was on making sure children don't fall through the cracks, thereby suffering long-lasting harm in terms of their overall development. Polis cited a study estimating that "the potential learning loss for the highest need kids, including English-language learners and kids with special needs" may translate to "$60,000 to $80,000 of lifetime earnings as a result of COVID-19-related learning gaps if they're not enrolled in school or miss a year or half a year." Disruptions in social connections that can further hamper their ability to communicate and relate with others as they grow, he added.

Many parents not ready to send their children back to school for in-person instruction have been less than pleased by the online options available through their neighborhood facilities, Polis conceded — but since Colorado is an open-enrollment state, he encouraged them to explore other available programs that may meet their standards. He also reminded guardians and care providers that handing kids a book and leaving for the day doesn't qualify as adequate home schooling. For those not willing or able to either follow a national home-schooling curriculum or invest the necessary time to make sure that kids are receiving an adequate education outside of the typical systems, Polis argued, enrollment is the best option, so at least they won't wind up so far behind that they'll never be able to catch up again.

Regarding what Polis called the state's "critical role against the threat of learning loss," he announced "outbreak guidance that gives schools more tools, like seating charts and mask wearing, to safely quarantine close contacts instead of entire cohorts" should a child test positive. He also touted the allotment of additional funds through the Colorado Department of Local Affairs intended to help provide stable housing to parents who qualify in multiple school districts, including Sheridan, Jefferson County and Boulder Valley. Such efforts may also help authorities and education professionals identify homeless students who have not been linked up with schools able to offer assistance to them and their families.

As Polis put it, "We cannot let our children's future be a victim of this global pandemic."

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