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New slots open for strike-affected preschoolers, but parents still scramble for care

A Denver preschooler gives a striker a high five while walking the picket line with his mother, a Denver teacher.
A Denver preschooler gives a striker a high five while walking the picket line with his mother, a Denver teacher.
Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat

Usually, Dawson Beck spends his days in a preschool classroom at Valdez Elementary School in northwest Denver. But with classes canceled in 220 district-run preschool rooms because of Monday’s teacher strike, the 4-year-old started his morning on the picket line with his mother Brandy Beck, an airline pilot who supports the teachers.

Later, Beck dropped Dawson off with another Valdez mom, one of several who created an impromptu babysitting co-op to cover the preschool cancellations this week. The arrangement, cobbled together Thursday night via text chain, illustrates one of the many ways preschool parents are scrambling this week to find emergency care for their kids. Other parents are staying home from work, relying on relatives for child care, or seeking spots in private child care programs.

In total, nearly 5,000 preschoolers in district-run programs have been affected by the cancellations.

State officials said they granted waivers to five child care providers on Monday to exempt them from certain state rules so they could accommodate Denver children affected by the strike. The waivers, four of which waived capacity requirements, effectively created 87 new slots.

Highlands United Methodist Church, part of a coalition of churches and synagogues supporting the teachers union, is one of the providers to receive a waiver. It is offering 30 slots split between two classrooms staffed by striking teachers.

Brad Laurvick, the church’s pastor, said the church received its state waiver Monday and had its first strike-affected child in care by 12:30 p.m. Fifteen children are scheduled to come Tuesday, and more may join them as church leaders work to get the word out.

Laurvick said the church already runs a preschool for 45 children, and, with help from parishioners after Sunday’s services, was quickly able to divide its social hall into two sections and equip it with toys and equipment for 30 more youngsters. The temporary slots, available for free, are meant to help children who need it most, those from single-parent families or whose parents can’t afford to miss work during the strike.

“To not do it would have been wrong,” he said.

Denver district officials announced Thursday that preschool classrooms would be closed during the strike, saying it would be impossible to secure substitutes who have the necessary requirements, including background checks, in time. Preschool classrooms are governed by state child care rules, which are stricter in some ways than rules for K-12 classrooms.

The strike stems from negotiations over the Denver district’s teacher pay system and has exposed deep philosophical divides about how teachers should be paid. But the dispute is about more than that: It comes with a backdrop of heightened teacher activism nationally and frustration locally among opponents of Denver school reforms.

Beck, who also has a second-grader at Valdez, was surprised by the preschool cancellation announcement on Thursday, which she learned about through the parent grapevine. She said she’d been under the impression that preschool classes could continue as usual during a strike.

But Beck said the Valdez parent community is tight knit and came through with child care help — something they’re tracking on a spreadsheet. Beck herself will pitch in Tuesday, watching six preschoolers with help from another mom.

Despite the inconvenience of the cancelled preschool classes, Beck supports the strike.

“I think that the teachers have every right to ask for a livable wage and to be able to live where they teach,” she said.

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