In this public health emergency, I am pleased to see the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) considers child care services to be “both critical and multifaceted,” while Gov. Phil Murphy describes child care professionals as “essential players.”

We have seen school closures and a heightened demand among emergency responders to dramatically increase the need for child care. In response, Murphy has issued “Executive Order 103,” which takes important steps toward ensuring social distancing and virus mitigation strategies in licensed child care centers to help ensure they remain open.

“We cannot leave anyone alone at this time of heightened anxiety,” Murphy said, during a March 18 news briefing.

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Speaking on behalf of child care professionals statewide, I am thankful that the state will be providing grants for cleaning supplies, although child care centers are some of the most sterile environments in existence. 

Many are unaware; there are many rigorous standards that are commonplace at licensed community-based childcare centers to ensure the safety and health of our children. Over the years, child care centers have invested heavily in ensuring safety at every level, from lead-free water systems to contaminant-free soil on the school playground. 

Every DCF-licensed center has an exclusive entryway for childcare centers, even facilities within a multi-use building must have screening and authorization for access.

As you can imagine, DCF-licensing requirements far exceed New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) standards relating to the safety of young children, particularly involving environmental and air quality concerns.  

As we continue to respond to this crisis, it is important for municipal officials statewide to continue to recognize the importance of child care centers in their communities and to recognize we are taking the strongest steps possible to eliminate any chance of infection.

It is also very important for the public to recognize all the ways in which DCF-licensed child care centers ensure the safety of children. That includes:

•Environmental Requirements

Unlike public school buildings, all licensed child care centers must comply with the “Madden Law,” the most stringent environmental safety standards in the country. These tight regulations require air, soil, and surface testing of all buildings and playgrounds.

•Facility Safety 

In a nation where school shootings, bullet-proof vestibules and strict access restrictions have sadly become commonplace in our public schools, the reality is those buildings serving infants and toddlers require even more protocol and security enhancements. This includes separate entrances or screeners for the multitudes of parents who drop off and pick up at all times of the day. 

As we move toward recovery from this pandemic, a lesson needs to be learned: it is imperative that state legislators and regulators hold public schools with pre-k classrooms to the same safety standards as any other DCF-licensed, community-based childcare centers. This is especially important for public school buildings that house childcare centers for infants and toddlers who absorb toxins at a significantly higher rate than older children.

To this end, Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, a strong advocate for child safety, has introduced legislation (A.3646)to fix an existing law for a pilot program that allows a limited number of infant and toddler care classrooms to operate within public schools. 

Early childhood educators take enormous pride in serving infants, toddlers and preschoolers by providing a loving, safe and clean environment. We also implement the best practices for both mental and physical development, in the most updated age-specific facilities with program-specific security and health precautions.

Let’s remember childcare needs are all day, year-round, no matter what.  There are no summer breaks, holiday recess, spring breaks or weather closings. And, as we are learning now, child care remains an essential service in any emergency. 

I urge lawmakers on the state and local level to work closely with early childhood experts, such as the ECEA, to ensure our youngest children remain as safe as possible, as their parents/guardians bravely serve the community during this unprecedented emergency.

Guy Falzarano is president of Early Childhood Education Advocates, Inc.