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New vaccine and masking rules for N.J. daycares could be a ‘very difficult task’

Young students are lined up in front of a white board before participating in a classroom activity.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced a vaccine mandate for all daycare workers by Nov. 1. Some facilities say the mandate will make it more challenging to fill vacant positions.
Youngrae Kim for Chalkbeat

All child care center workers in New Jersey have five weeks to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or face weekly testing after Nov. 1, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.

In this latest executive order, Murphy also clarified the state’s masking rule, requiring all employees, visitors, students, and children 2 and up in child care centers to wear face masks indoors. The face mask policy is effective starting Friday.

“We know there are already many child care providers who are doing their utmost to protect the children in their care, their employees, and their communities, and we thank them,” Murphy said Monday during a weekly COVID-19 news conference in Trenton. “This order ensures that everyone is abiding by the same strong standards.”

The announcement comes almost a month after the state ordered all preschool to grade 12 workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or be subject to weekly COVID testing. School workers must have their second dose by Oct. 4 in order to meet that deadline, as it takes two weeks to be fully inoculated. Murphy has also issued similar mandates for all healthcare and state employees.

Daycare personnel will need to have their final dose by Oct. 18 in order to be fully vaccinated by the Nov. 1 deadline. Free vaccination sites are set up throughout the state, including several pop-up locations in Newark.

Child care center advocates say they’re willing to do what’s necessary to keep the children they serve and their families safe. But the mandate might cause another hurdle for many daycare centers that are already facing staffing shortages or don’t have the funds to provide weekly testing.

“I would say the majority of staff members in child care centers statewide are vaccinated or have expressed interest in getting vaccinated, but there are still a lot of members who are resistant,” said Lynette Galante, vice president of the New Jersey Child Care Association. The non-profit organization advocates for private child care centers in the state and provides them with professional development training and guidance.

Galante is the executive director of Future Generation Early Learning Centers in Bloomfield and Colts Neck, where she’s had a mandatory COVID vaccine policy in place since April for all her staff. The Bloomfield facility also serves families from Newark, Glen Ridge, Montclair, East Orange, and Cedar Grove.

Though her facilities have had strict protocols in place for months and have been able to remain fully staffed, she says many other centers have had difficulty filling vacant staffing positions caused by closures during the pandemic. Potential candidates might not feel comfortable showing proof of vaccination, she added.

“We’ve already been struggling with staffing in crazy ways,” Galante said. “We’ve been doing whatever we can – raising our pay scales significantly, sign-on bonuses, whatever we could possibly think of – to attract employees who have experience and are eager to implement curriculum.”

“It’s always been a challenge” to keep centers fully staffed, Galante added, “but now it’s like a challenge times 10,000 because of the pandemic. And this mandate is adding another layer.”

The association is also concerned about funding for weekly testing, Galante said. When her centers reopened last summer, she purchased 24 rapid COVID-19 tests to have on hand “just in case,” which costed her around $800 to $1,000, she said.

“It’s one thing when you’re requiring school districts to follow this mandate and districts have the staffing and the funds to administer tests,” she said. “But you’re talking about some child care centers that are mom-and-pop operations and don’t have the money to buy hundreds of dollars worth of tests.”

A press release from the governor’s office stated that employers can provide on-site access to testing or require employees to submit proof of a COVID-19 test; either antigen or molecular tests will be acceptable. The state has a COVID-19 test site finder to help residents find free testing locations.

For Esther Maldonado, director of Our Small World Daycare on Summer Avenue in Newark, the vaccine and testing requirement won’t be an issue. Her staff has been fully vaccinated since the spring, she said.

But the masking requirement for two-year-olds at her daycare center, a small establishment that accommodates up to 24 children, will be a real challenge, she said.

“As much as we encourage them to wear their masks, the 2-year-olds, they just get tired and take them off,” Maldonado said. “Once they take them off, it’s on the floor and we have to replace them. How do we force a 2- or a 2-and-a-half-year-old to keep a mask on? It’s going to be a very difficult task.”

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