Teachers strike is no vacation for parents

In some ways, it's been like summer in October for the last couple of weeks in the Seneca Valley (PA) School District: Children are filling the swimming pool at the local YMCA, going out to restaurants for lunch and practicing new skateboard tricks in their back yards.

But for parents, this is no vacation. "It's kind of an anxious time," said Kaye Wahlstrom, a Cranberry parent with three children in the school system. "Every day is just a wait-and-see."

About 7,600 students have been home from school since Oct. 15, when the district's 575 teachers - who have been working without a contract since June 30, 2006 - went on strike.

The families struggling the most are those with parents working outside the home who have to find daily child care for their young children.

Some community organizations have stepped in to help - the Rose E. Schneider Family YMCA in Cranberry has expanded its after-school program to span the full day - but some parents have been forced to take days off from work or rely on help from family and friends.

"It's just terrible," said Tammy McLay, who has a 12-year-old daughter at Seneca Valley Middle School and works as an office manager in Carnegie. "Thank goodness mine is old enough to stay home, but she's home all day by herself."

When Ms. McLay, of Zelienople, took her daughter to the bank with her yesterday, she said the teller noted that there were a lot of kids "shadowing" their parents around town these days.

Though child care isn't an issue for Ms. Wahlstrom, a stay-at-home mom, the strike has created numerous complications.

One of her children is a high school senior with college application deadlines starting Dec. 1. If the strike goes until Nov. 16 -- the date that the striking teachers must be back in the classroom to squeeze in the state-mandated 180 days of instruction -- she's concerned that seniors might get caught in an application crunch.

"Every senior is going to need a transcript immediately, plus recommendations," she said.

The family had been planning to spend Christmas with relatives in Utah, but the trip is in jeopardy now that the holiday may be shortened.

And planning is completely on hold for a vacation that the family was hoping to take right after the original last day of school on June 6, because the school year might now extend later in the month.

"It sounds so superficial but to families it's not," she said. "We fight for time together."

For Barb Hogan, another Cranberry parent, it's the day-to-day routine that has her concerned.

She's not letting her three kids sleep past 9 a.m., and she's encouraging her children to look at their schoolwork, so that they don't forget everything by the time they get back to school.

"I'm trying to keep them in school mode and not get too much into vacation mode," she said.

As for the students at Seneca Valley, while some are enjoying their time off, others realize how much they actually like going to school.

"Everyone says it's no fun when you're going, but when you're missing it, it's like 'What happened?' " said Steven Chepke, a seventh-grader at Seneca Valley Middle School. "You never see your friends anymore."

The two sides met informally Friday for less than an hour and "had a fairly brief conversation about where everybody was," said Tom King, the attorney for the school board.

The teachers union and the school board are still about $13 million apart on salaries and $350,000 apart on health care, said Mr. King.

No future negotiating sessions are scheduled.

The two sides also have held two formal negotiating sessions during the two-week strike, a pace that has frustrated some parents.

"I wish that both sides were negotiating, and that's why I feel like it's a waste of time," said Ms. Wahlstrom. "They have the kids out of school, and they're doing nothing. That's what's frustrating as a parent."


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