By CBS4 Political Specialist Shaun Boyd

DENVER (CBS4)- Colorado is spending billions of dollars to help combat COVID-19 learning loss among K-12 students. Over the last year, the federal government has provided $2.3 billion and the state has appropriated $44 million in COVID-19 relief for public schools.

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That money is on top of the annual per-pupil funding which came to about $7.2 billion last year. The money comes as public schools have seen a 3.3% drop (30,024 fewer students) in enrollment while the number of home school students has doubled to about 16,000.

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Sen. Paul Lundeen is among those stunned by the amount of funding.

“There’s buckets and buckets of cash and sloshing over the tops of the buckets. That’s how much cash there is.”

Lundeen sits on the Senate Education Committee, which learned about all the funding Wednesday during a presentation by the Department of Education.

Sen. Jeff Bridges says it is an eye-popping amount of money.

“So we had a conversation today say, ‘what are you going to do with this money?”

A survey by the Department of Education found the top priority for elementary schools is addressing reading loss. Middle schools and high schools are worried about kids mental health.

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Lundeen says, “This mental health crisis in middle school and high school students that’s being reported by the districts is because they’re not in their classrooms, not going through their routines. We need to get students back in class honestly not just say they’re back in classrooms, then have the quarantine rules kick them out.”

The Department of Education says it will take some students years to recover from COVID-19 learning loss. Colorado had one of the highest achievement gaps before the pandemic, and Bridges says, it’s only widened.

(credit: CBS)

“Making sure that no matter where you come from, you get good education in this state. That has been a top goal for years and years and with this money we have a real chance of addressing it.”

He says summer school, tutoring, and extended days among the ideas being considered by the Department of Education.

“They want to talk students and parents. They want to involve communities in this conversation to say ‘what is it that we can do to really make a difference?'”

Lundeen says he’d like to see some of the money flow directly to parents to use for learning pods, for example, saying they know best what their kids need. The Department of Education says staffing is another big need.

Not only are districts seeing high burnout among teachers, but critical shortages of bus drivers and janitors.

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In addition to the $2.3 billion for public schools, the federal government also allocated $67 million for private schools and has approved tens of millions of additional dollars for special education, library and technology, homeless kids and nutrition programs.

Shaun Boyd