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NJ officials ‘monitoring closely’ as hundreds of centers reopen to care for children of essential workers only; one operator is ready ‘but a little nervous’

This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit

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By Mark J. Bonamo

When Carmen Rodriguez, the owner of Sunshine Daycare in Belleville, closed her four locations shortly after Gov. Phil Murphy issued the statewide stay-at-home order last month in response to the accelerating COVID-19 pandemic, she joined millions of New Jersey residents wondering how she would make ends meet.

The Murphy administration’s subsequent establishment of the Emergency Child Care Assistance Program, set up to fund child care for the children of workers deemed “essential” in the fight against the pandemic, is meant to support parents, children, and selected day-care centers alike. The program, created through Murphy’s Executive Order 110, directed all child-care centers in New Jersey to close on April 1 unless they certify that they will solely serve as emergency child-care centers for the children of essential workers.

Now Rodriguez is looking toward soon reopening her day-care service, one of 600 child-care centers that have been certified by the state to provide the emergency child care. Yet, she is focused just as much on the unforeseen effects of the new policy as she is relieved about the resurrection of her business.

Meanwhile, the director of a day-care center just twenty minutes from Belleville is not sure that she will be able to reopen under the program because staffers at her center, afraid of exposure to the coronavirus, are reluctant to return to work amid the pandemic.

Under the emergency program, the state will pay $336 to $450 a week in child-care costs for the children of essential personnel depending on the age of the child, with those using the program responsible for the difference between these rates and what the child-care center is charging. At these rates, the state could either supplement what parents were paying before the pandemic hit, or in certain cases — depending on the price charged by the center — cover the full cost. Tuition for child-care center services supplemented by the program cannot exceed 110% of the rate the center charged in February 2020.

Fielding phone calls from parents

“I’m ready, but I’m a little nervous. This is first time in 21 years in day care that I’m experiencing this, and I don’t know what’s going on,” said Rodriguez as she fielded phone calls from parents looking to get their children the care they need while they go to battle the virus that has led to 61,850 confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Jersey and taken 2,350 lives as of Sunday afternoon. “I’m training my staff, but the world is going to change. Everything is going to be new for all of us, not just from this new child-care plan, but after the whole pandemic gets under control.”

The executive order signed by Murphy on March 25 deemed essential workers to include those in health care, law enforcement, fire and emergency services and correctional facilities, as well as group home and shelter staff; and essential government employees who are unable to work from home, among others.

The Murphy administration maintains that it is committed to funding the program until the end of April, at which time it will reevaluate, in the hope that additional federal resources will help address the child-care needs of the essential personnel.

According to the state Department of Children and Families (DCF), the agency typically licenses about 4,000 child-care centers statewide in normal, non-pandemic times. Collectively, the approximately 600 child-care centers certified by the DCF to participate in the new program can serve an estimated 51,000 children ranging from birth to 13 years old.

Rodriguez believes that while setting up 600 emergency day-care centers for the children of essential personnel is a start in addressing this critical need, it is nowhere near enough. She noted that her centers serve many law enforcement officers, as well as health professionals, supermarket workers, post office employees and package delivery personnel, all part of the workforce fabric now keeping society stitched together as the coronavirus crisis continues.

‘Desperate for day care’

Rodriguez told the story of an Elizabeth police officer who is struggling to find a place for his children while he works the streets in a city where the COVID-19 curve has yet to flatten.

“The cop has two kids, and he’s desperate for day care. We get a lot of calls, and there’s a lot of need for help, especially for infants and toddlers,” Rodriguez said, who continues to try to find a place for the police officer’s child as her limited spaces fill up. “What they’re offering in terms of the number of day-care centers is not enough.”

For Marilyn Estrems, director of child care for Bergen Day School in Teaneck, a town in the heart of Bergen County, the hottest of New Jersey’s zones for confirmed coronavirus cases, the question is whether she will ever have enough staff at her center to get the job done.

“People are scared, and no one wants to work,” said Estrems, who said that none of her 12 staffers have been willing to show up after the initial state-sanctioned shutdown of her child-care center, although she normally helps take care of several children who are the kids of essential personnel. “I think that they’re frightened because some staffers have older parents, or they have their own children who might have pre-existing conditions such as asthma, and therefore don’t want to take the risk of being exposed. For these employees of mine, they feel that they’re better off staying at home, just as much as friends of mine that work in local hospitals. The fear is real.”

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) was a strong proponent of closing the state’s child-care centers when the pandemic began. However, he is also an advocate for keeping certain centers open to exclusively serve the children of essential personnel. He worked with Murphy to help establish the safety protocols, including social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment, as the selected day-care centers open.

‘Top priority’ to take care of children of frontline workers

“Health care professionals and the other groups eligible for this program are more than essential right now. They’re everything this fight,” Vitale said. “Making sure that they can come to work because we’re taking care of their children is a top priority in the fight against the virus. If they can’t come to work, then they can’t do their job.”

Vitale said that the centers chosen to open were picked based on a range of criteria, including their proximity to a hospital, acceptance of the state-outlined rate, and making sure that there was a mix of smaller day-care centers along with larger chain operations. As for the number of centers open overall and the ability to meet the pressing need for child-care for essential personnel, Vitale said the situation is fluid.

“It’s unlikely they will fill up all those child-care spots for the children of essential [workers] immediately at one time. It will depend on whether the state expands opportunities for parents somewhere in the supply chain that will dictate either more day-care centers opening, filling up the existing ones, or if necessary, to change the rate downward so people can afford to open up more,” said Vitale, who is the parent of a young child who had been attending day care. “We just don’t know yet.”

State authorities also acknowledged the fluctuating situation.

“The DCF’s Office of Childcare Licensing is closely monitoring need versus capacity,” said DCF spokesperson Nicole Brossoie in an email. “[We] will consider expansion of childcare resources as appropriate.”

Strict safety protocols

Back in Belleville, Rodriguez and her staff are getting ready to do their job. She plans to open only one of her four day-care centers at first, making sure to follow the mandated safety protocols set by the DCF, which reduce group sizes to no larger than 10 people total, including children and adults. This designated number is part of the social-distancing strategies.

As for what happens when she reopens, she has some trepidation about putting the new emergency child-care plan in place, but no hesitation.

Rodriguez is ready to follow the social-distancing strategies that momentarily kill all field trips, assemblies, and performances. She is ready to stagger drop-off, pick-up, and arrange outside play times into shifts that ensure minimal physical contact. Guidelines for frequent hand-washing and avoidance of touching faces are now a given, part of not only the state-mandated, anti-COVID-19 protocols, but also part of the new normal in New Jersey, the nation, and the world.

Above all, she is ready to contend with the deep well of anxiety that society, including those trying to provide child care for the children of critically important workers, are forced to sink or swim in. After all, life goes on, even in the face of death.

“Parents have to go to work. If they’re not working, they’re not going to call us for anything. So we have to keep going, for all of us, especially the kids,” Rodriguez said. “How are people going to pay their bills, including myself? How far is this going to go? Nobody knows. We all just have to go step by step.”

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