NORTH HALEDON, NJ - Child care centers across the state of New Jersey have no doubt been an essential part of the economy. Businesses learned this lesson the hard way when the coronavirus pandemic hit and everyone was gravely affected. 

Local daycare and preschool, The Learning Experience of North Haledon, is one child care center that not only survived these unprecedented times, but thrived. They remained open throughout the pandemic, serving their community as an emergency center solely operating for essential employees.  Thanks to their dedication to their families, nurses, police officers, and other workers who were heroes during the quarantine period were able to continue to serve their community as well. As of June 15, Governor Murphy added child care centers to the list of businesses allowed to reopen to the general public with modified health and safety policies and procedures. Among the many changes that were put in place were mandated wearing of masks for all employees, social distancing recommendations within classrooms, and stricter sanitation protocol. Inspectors from the State of New Jersey's Office of Licensing Department have been making frequent visits to reopened centers, ensuring that the centers are adhering to these new procedures.

The academic year has officially ended for preschools, and so, The Learning Experience of North Haledon sought a level of normalcy as they organized a "Drive Through Preschool Ceremony." This event was a way to commemorate the students moving up to kindergarten in their perspective school districts, many of whom are going into Hawthorne public schools. Traditionally, centers organize their graduation ceremonies at a local hall, public school, or other facility. Given today's unpredictability with facility usage, most child care centers opted out of hosting an in-person graduation at all.

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The Learning Experience of North Haledon was able to tweak their ceremony to meet CDC's updated health and safety standards while still providing a feeling of normalcy. The students in attendance walked confidently to "Pomp and Circumstance" alongside their proud parents as they received their Preschool Diplomas from the owner and director of the facility.  All adults wore face masks and the beautifully decorated cars of family members and friends were spaced out to adhere to social distancing guideline. Family members and friends held signs high and cheered loudly as the children paraded by. Former Hawthorne resident and center owner Alicia Antoine said, "I am so glad that we could organize this for our families. Of course, it is bitter-sweet to see our graduates go off to kindergarten, but knowing that their parents entrusted us for their child's early education makes it all worth it. Each child and parent truly became family to me, and I am so proud of them all!"

Parent of Emmett and current public school teacher, Heather Andersen, chatted with the director about how happy she was that the center celebrated her son's huge achievement. She shared her relief that the center would still be able to accommodate Emmett in the fall if there are concerns about the virus in his next school. The Learning Experience of North Haledon will be open to kindergartners throughout the school year, with a current plan of extending their license to meet the needs of school-aged children as well.

Falon Chavous, parent of one of the preschool graduates, talked about how happy it made her to be able to get the students back together again, one last time. "I didn't know what to expect today, but I'm just glad that they could see each other, say 'goodbye' and 'see you later,' you know?"

Another public school teacher and parent, Lesly Vargas, shared her thoughts on the changes that were put in place during this graduation ceremony. "I've done it from the teacher's side, so I know what goes into a whole big preschool graduation. Having to wear masks and wanting to go hug each other but having to be told they can't... It almost brought me to tears, seeing how different things had to be. But they felt it, they were excited over it, and I'm happy we got to be here."

Parents left the ceremony proudly saying that their little ones graduated from an award-winning preschool. The Learning Experience of North Haledon recently received the prestigious honor of the company's "Center of Excellence" Award. This award is bestowed upon only the top 10 percent of centers nationwide who receive a score of 95 percent or better on annual evaluations.

Being that many centers are privately owned small businesses, there have been countless daycares that did not survive the damaging effects of the statewide quarantine.  The closures have impacted not only business owners, but the families who depended on them for child care once their own jobs reopened. It is true that the childcare industry has been greatly affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and only the strongest have survived.

Editor's Note: Jessica Ellis is the Center Director at the Learning Experience of North Haledon.

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