As Jeffco planned to open schools for in-person learning, staff and leaders from several departments weighed in on how things would have to be different in preschools to keep students and staff safe.
They decided it was better for kids to eat in their rooms so cohorts wouldn’t mix in the cafeteria. It was also best to get rid of shared surfaces such as big tables. And to keep the carpets clean, small children should eat on the floor in their rooms, not the carpet.
Hannah Mauro, an early childhood instructional partner which is a non-licensed preschool instructor, said she and her preschool colleagues were horrified. But they didn’t get to weigh in on how unsanitary that might be.
“Those floors are connected to the bathroom,” Mauro said. “I can’t even think about it. It was awful. We were really the only group of people left out of that conversation.”
So Mauro and her colleagues started organizing and are now asking Jeffco Public Schools to recognize a union chapter for non-licensed preschool staff in Jeffco. Their chapter would be under JESPA, the district’s union for support staff.
Jeffco staff have told the organizers that because of the transition to a new superintendent who joined last month, the district needs some time before responding. A district spokesperson said the response is expected May 25.
The group pressed the board at a recent meeting asking to avoid delays.
“As the district delays, children suffer because their teachers do not have a full seat at the table to advocate for them,” Mauro said.
Planning for the summer and for next year has begun, and Jeffco preschool staff said they want to be part of the conversation this time. Their union would cover about 150 staff members in the district.
Besides offering input into recovery plans, being part of a union is about feeling valued, they said, something that has disappeared as the district has transitioned to new preschool models that put more value on having a college degree than on experience.
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Morgan Canjar, who has worked in Jeffco preschools since 2015, learned recently that her new job as a preschool site director will disappear next year as part of the new preschool model.
Since 2018, Jeffco has been transitioning preschool classrooms to a new model that relies on a licensed teacher to run each room, with the assistance of a non-licensed educator. That aligns with a statewide push to increase the credentials of the early childhood teachers, part of a push to make the job more professional.
Licensed preschool teachers have bachelor degrees, receive higher pay, and are more likely to be part of teachers unions, like teachers of other grade levels.
Jeffco district staff did not grant an interview to explain why Jeffco is changing preschool models, but in an email stated that it was part of the request in the 2018 mill levy approved by voters.
“A CDE teaching license matches the requirements for K-12 teachers in Jeffco Public Schools and across the state of Colorado. We are proud to provide a high-quality preschool education with this strong and valued partnerships between those professionals,” the email stated.
But Mauro and others said the new model also means that the licensed staff members, who are often younger and less experienced than longtime staff, are now in charge of classrooms. More veteran non-licensed staff have to take a step back to become assistants.
That model does away with the preschool director positions like the one Canjar has held. Her role has been to ensure licensing and other regulations are met, and to fill in at times to ensure student-to-staff ratios don’t exceed limits.
“We’re just getting pushed aside,” Canjar said. “I’ve worked really hard to get where I’m at. It sucks losing it all.”
Jeffco did provide some money, starting in March 2018, to help non-licensed staff go back to college to complete their requirements to apply for a license. But in January, as a result of the pandemic, the district said, it eliminated that fund.
Canjar said that some staff in the middle of their college programs had to scramble to find other ways to pay for their classes when the funding was pulled.
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The Jeffco district said it will reinstate that money.
But even with the financial help, Canjar said for her and others, going back to school might not be so easy.
One teacher told Canjar she has to put her children through college first. Other veteran teachers who may be closer to retirement said going back to college now is just not worth it.
Another concern among these preschool teachers is that classroom budgets in many of their schools have been frozen during the pandemic, meaning they can’t buy new materials for students, unless it’s out of their own pocket.
In other districts, some non-licensed early childhood staff belong to a union, and some do not. The Jeffco organizers point out that Denver and Adams 12, where Jeffco’s new Superintendent Tracy Dorland used to work, both have unions for non-licensed early childhood staff.
Aurora doesn’t have a union for any non-licensed support staff. In Westminster, non-licensed teachers have the option of joining the union, just like licensed teachers.
At the end of the day, Jeffco organizers say, all of their concerns relate to a need to have a voice in matters that affect preschool classrooms in Jeffco.
“Have you ever had to ask for permission to truly be heard and it just falls on deaf ears?” another preschool teacher asked the board this month. “That’s where non-licensed preschool teachers in Jeffco have been for years. We are just as deserving of being heard.”