It’s no secret that Telluride and Mountain Village part-time residents have been staying longer in the area as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Local officials say those stays have increased by 30 percent. But will those families remain here for the school year?
Other school districts in Colorado’s resort communities are seeing increases in enrollment as a result of their second homeowners eschewing their primary residences for a perceived sense of safety in the small mountain towns where they usually spend just a few weeks out of the year. In a recent Colorado Sun story, school administrators in Crested Butte, Aspen and Gunnison are fielding higher enrollment and visits from not only out-of-state homeowners, but from Colorado’s Front Range. Gunnison Watershed District Schools had averaged 28 students a year, according to the story. Superintendent Leslie Nichols told the Sun, “The growth already exceeds the typical new enrollment for sure and it’s only July 20. We anticipate more.”
Telluride school district officials are not sure the local increase in enrollment is directly attributable to that phenomenon. Telluride School District Superintendent John Pandolfo said overall, the correlation was “anecdotal.”
“This is true in some cases but we do not have accurate data on that, (it’s) only anecdotal,” he said.
Each of the district’s schools are experiencing increased enrollment, and though there have been some families leaving, those figures are offset by the number of families committing to the district for the 2020-21 school year.
According to Pandolfo, so far, enrollment at the Telluride Elementary School (pre-K through second grade) is up by 20 students. There are usually around 200 students enrolled there.
At the Intermediate School (grades three through six), average enrollment is approximately 260 students, with 14 new faces expected this year. And 17 new students will be joining the ranks of the approximately 460 young people usually filling classrooms at the Telluride Middle/High School.
Enrollment is still open and those figures could increase.
Public schools are legally obligated to accept as many in-district students as enroll. Traditionally, the Telluride district has accepted students from outside the district, such as Norwood, as well as students from Rico, who would otherwise, if they remained in-district, attend schools in Dolores County. That is a relationship Pandolfo would like to see continue.
“We are not obligated to (accept) out-of-district students, but feel obligated to honor relationships we have in place,” he said.
About half as many families have left the district than have come in. Pandolfo gave the example of the intermediate school, which saw 11 families leave the district, with 24 new students coming in for a net gain of 11 children.
Reasons for leaving the district are not always shared with school officials, but could include factors such as lack of work, transfers or other circumstances.
Pandolfo said that based on past trends, the increase has been notable. In previous years trends were, he said, “Generally flat to small increases but less than what are seeing now. I would estimate maybe 50 percent, but that is a guess.”
A larger student body is welcome, as Colorado public schools receive per pupil funding from the state. That figure in the 2018-19 school year averaged $8,137 across the state. But, as a result of an abundance of precautions the district is taking in an effort to restart in-person schooling, class sizes have been necessarily reduced in order to comply with social distancing mandates issued by the San Miguel County Public Health Department. At what point does increased enrollment become a detriment or a challenge to in-person teaching?
“It already has at some level,” Pandolfo said. “Some of our class enrollments are now higher than the (COVID-reduced) classroom capacities.”
Middle and high school principal Sara Kimble agreed that enrollment was up, families have indeed moved away, but that the schools were seeing more come in than were leaving. The real story, she said, is one of public health, as Kimble, more than anything, would like to see people “commit to the five commitments.”
It’s a refrain oft-repeated by not only school officials but by those in government and public health. Those are, she reitereated: frequent hand-washing; maintain six feet or more distance from others; wear a face covering in all public, indoor space and on public transportation, or outdoors when social distancing cannot be maintained; stay home when ill; and get tested immediately if any of coronavirus symptoms are displayed.
“(Let’s) keep our cases low and go forward with in-person learning.”