Child care centers in New Jersey reopen with new protocols

The new check-in stations at the Harmony School, where students’ temperatures are checked. Plenty of hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and gloves are also at the stations.

Child care centers across the state are welcoming back families today with new health and safety protocols in place to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

A local childcare center, The Harmony School at Princeton Forrestal Village, shared with Planet Princeton what preparing for reopening has entailed. Staff at the center have been trained over the last several weeks to adapt to state guidelines in preparation for Monday’s reopening, even conducting in-person drills to practice new protocols.

School is beginning with only 50 children today, one-third of the usual population, and will increase incrementally to 100 children, the current state maximum, by September, said Lisa Forrester, owner and director of The Harmony School. Forrester hopes the staggered opening will give her staff the opportunity to adjust to new procedures.

Forrester understands the need to keep classrooms at a lower capacity, although doing so will reduce the center’s revenue, making it harder to pay operational costs. It’s a dilemma faced by many business owners who have struggled with decisions on whether to reopen their businesses at a reduced capacity and risk not breaking even, wait to open until things get better, or shut down for good.

“We will have to economize in other areas,” Forrester said of reopening at a reduced capacity. “And no one knows when we’ll be able to increase our population.”

The school has made various changes to ensure the well-being of its students. Staff members will check the temperature of every child before they enter the building, and ask parents a series of questions to make sure the child did not take any fever-reducing medications prior to arriving at school and was not knowingly exposed to anyone with COVID-19. No one with a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit is permitted inside the building, and Harmony staff members are required to let the state know if they turn anyone away because of a high temperature.

Staff members will also check with parents or guardians to find out if family members are working in medical professions or are regularly in contact with COVID-19 patients.

New regulations prohibit all parents from entering the child care center, with the exception of breast-feeding mothers. Parents would typically accompany their children into the center and interact with staff members inside, so this change will “take some getting used to,” Forrester said.

Frequent hand washing and cleaning of surfaces and toys were already routine at most child care centers, according to Forrester. The Harmony School will also bring in a professional cleaning service once a month to deep clean the center with disinfectants.

All staff members will be required to wear masks, and children over two years old will be encouraged to do so. Forrester said she and her team intend to be sensitive in their encouragement, and will not force any child to do something they’re scared to do. Forrester hopes that as children get acclimated to the center and see staff members wearing masks, they will become more willing to follow suit.

The school will require all parents and staff to sign a document stating their agreement to conduct their home life in a safe manner. For example, Forrester said, if a staff member were to attend a crowded protest, they would be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days following the event.

“We’re asking everyone to be transparent with us,” Forrester said, who expects to be in frequent contact with the New Jersey Department of Early Childhood Licensing and the New Jersey Department of Health to make all critical health-related decisions. She said she has found both departments to be very helpful in providing staff training as well as guidance on a case-by-case basis.

Many childcare centers have played an important role during the pandemic, providing services to families of healthcare workers and first responders so they can help on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said this month that daycare centers, like summer camps, also play an important role in helping parents be able to get back to work.

Despite uncertainty about the summer and fall, Forrester feels confident that The Harmony School is adhering to state guidelines, and is ready for whatever changes the coming months may bring.

Staff at the Harmony School do a practice run of student check-ins.
Staff at the Harmony School form a socially distanced line as they run through protocols for reopening.