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School districts concerned with literacy and mental health of students, state survey finds

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Robert Davis

(The Center Square) – A Colorado Department of Education (CDE) survey found staff shortages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have state educators concerned about the impacts on K-3 literacy rates and the mental health of their students.

The survey released this week is the second survey CDE has conducted this year. The follow-up was conducted between October 14 and 30, during which time 140 school districts and three Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) responded, accounting for nine out of 10 Colorado students. Of respondents, 80% were from rural districts.

The survey sought to build on information collected during the spring, which revealed “an immediate need for [internet] hardware, software and connectivity solutions,” according to the department.

In the survey, 56% of districts reported their concern for K-3 reading rates was a top-priority, while 52% said it was their student's mental health. Rural districts were more likely to report concern for literacy rates than metropolitan school districts. Meanwhile, 90% of districts reported being concerned with the mental health of the teachers currently employed. 

“We were able to use the information from the spring survey to focus our efforts and resources to support districts' needs for increased internet access, and I’m hopeful this inventory can help us target additional resources to support our teachers, students and districts through the long haul of this pandemic,” Anthes said.

“Our teachers and districts have worked miracles to provide safe, quality learning environments for our students who are learning both remotely and in-person, especially when you consider the staffing shortages so many of them are up against,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a statement.

In October, the U.S. Department of Agriculture granted Colorado $6 million to expand rural broadband access. Another $20 million was appropriated for the cause during the special legislative session.

Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert told The Center Square that the pandemic has exacerbated funding issues for public education in the state.

“Public education in Colorado has suffered from chronic underfunding for more than a decade, and the global COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the issue,” she said.

Over the past decade, the Colorado’s per pupil funding has grown to be $3,300 below the national average, according to CDE data.

In May, lawmakers slashed $1.3 billion from the education fund to pass a balanced budget after the COVID-19 lockdown caused a $3.4 billion budgetary shortfall.

During the special session, Rep. James Wilson, R–Salida, introduced legislation that would prohibit further education budget cuts during the 2020-2021 fiscal year, but it never made it out of committee.

“Colorado saw more than $8 billion withheld from its public schools before COVID-19, resulting in a public education system already short of resources and staff to be stretched even thinner. We don’t want the lasting effects of the pandemic to worsen an already severe educator shortage,” Baca-Oehlert added.