A late surge in demand overwhelms Colorado’s state-sponsored online school

Noel Community Arts School students work on a language arts project at the Denver school in May 2019. (Nathan W. Armes/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s state-sponsored online school has been overwhelmed by demand as a diverse collection of districts turn to the nonprofit provider to serve students whose parents don’t want them in a classroom during the pandemic.

Colorado Digital Learning Solutions had to suspend registration just a few days after it opened last week to work through a backlog of requests, and the organization is scrambling to hire enough teachers to keep up. The online program has been asking schools for enrollment estimates since June, but demand ballooned in the last two weeks as parents finally made their decisions. 

“It almost scares me when I look at this dashboard,” executive director Dan Morris said on Sunday as he worked through the weekend to catch up. 

Designed as a supplemental service to help students in small districts access more specialized coursework, Colorado Digital Learning Solutions shifted gears over the summer to serve as the designated online school for districts that aren’t able to create their own programs, vet material, and train teachers to teach over a computer screen. 

There are now 170 school districts and charter organizations representing roughly 300 schools working with Colorado Digital Learning Solutions, up from 125 last school year. The online provider previously worked almost entirely with small, rural districts, but now it’s providing online courses and teacher training to medium-size districts along the Front Range as well. Some are outsourcing their entire online program, while others are using the system to offer more electives to students staying home.

Colorado Digital Learning Solutions isn’t the only online option in the state. The state and some school districts authorize online charter schools, and most large districts have their own online programs. But if students from one district leave for another, or for a statewide charter school, they take with them thousands of dollars in state funding. Districts that enroll students in Colorado Digital Learning Solutions pay a fee to the online provider, but keep much of the state funding. 

More students, seeking more courses

The absolute numbers are small. Many of the districts that work with the state online school serve just a few hundred students total. So far, the system has a little more than 1,300 students, less than 1% of the state’s K-12 student population. Administrators are working to accommodate many more as districts finalize their enrollment figures, but they struggled to put a firm number on their capacity. A pop-up on the online provider’s website directs interested parents to go through their districts to register.

Unlike in past years, when a student might take Chinese or AP Chemistry online and the rest of their classes at their home school, many students are now seeking to take full course loads online. The organization is also offering classes for large numbers of elementary students for the first time.

And the requests keep coming.

“Some districts are just calling us now,” Morris said. “I was receiving calls for the first time on Friday, saying, ‘Can we sign up and register our kids?’” 

Other districts that expected to send a few dozen students to the online school are instead sending several hundred.

“There is no way our programs can support 20% of all the kids who request to go online,” Morris said. “That’s what caused the bubble and having to suspend registration.”

Meeting demand locally

The combination of limited online capacity and parents delaying their decision has had ripple effects for districts. The Montezuma-Cortez RE-1 district in southwestern Colorado was supposed to start school Monday, Aug. 17, and instead had to push it back a week to Aug. 24 because so many parents selected the online option. 

“With the higher-than-expected numbers of families who have requested the online option across the state and in our district, we learned this week that the state may not be able to serve all of our students with the state’s online teachers,” Superintendent Lori Haukeness wrote Friday in an email to parents in the 2,600-student district. She also begged the many parents who had not yet stated a preference to do so by Aug. 17 so the district can plan. 

Montezuma-Cortez is now working to assign its own teachers to work with local families using platforms and curriculum offered by the state online school. 

That’s a new option Colorado Digital Learning Solutions developed over the summer and that it’s encouraging districts to consider as a way to meet demand and maintain local relationships. This option, for which districts also pay a fee, would help districts that have to pivot to online learning if a school closes due to an outbreak, said Ken Haptonstall, executive director of the Colorado River Board of Cooperative Educational Services. 

The Colorado River BOCES serves as the fiscal agent for Colorado Empowered Learning, a state entity that oversees both Colorado Digital Learning Solutions and iLearn Collaborative, which provides training in online instruction for teachers.

The bottleneck is occurring even though Gov. Jared Polis pledged more than $5 million in federal relief money to Colorado Empowered Learning back in June. Haptonstall said he didn’t get clearance to spend the money until Friday. The delay is a result of federal red tape, Haptonstall said, not anything state officials could control, but it still made it hard to hire teachers in advance of the start of the school year.

And how many students Colorado Digital Learning Solutions can serve depends in large part on how many teachers it can hire. In particular, the online provider needs elementary teachers licensed in Colorado. Last year was the first time the school offered elementary school courses, and administrators are committed to keeping class sizes no larger than 30.

“We are not going to overload our teachers,” Morris said. “We are not going to be an online mill. So that is the challenge.”

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