Calls grow for vaccine mandate in child care centers

By: - August 27, 2021 6:58 am

A day care center in Bloomfield (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

Gov. Phil Murphy’s new executive order requiring the state’s teachers be vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 tests has a blind spot.

The mandate imposed by Monday’s order extends to public and private preschools associated with a school board, but it does not cover licensed child care centers that don’t share such affiliations. Advocates said that should change.

“If the purpose of the executive order is to protect children because they are not yet eligible for the vaccine and to limit the spread of COVID, then it should apply to all places where children are cared for, including child care centers,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

Virus strains dominant for much of the pandemic posed a relatively small threat to children, but that changed as the more-virulent Delta variant has taken hold in the Garden State.

Positivity rates for children have risen in recent weeks and are now roughly equal — or in some cases higher — than those for among the general public, though hospitalizations have remained confined to the low-teens.

No COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for use in children under the age of 12, who account for a majority of the population in New Jersey’s child care settings.

A key lawmaker urged child care centers to impose their own vaccine mandates — there’s nothing to bar them from doing so — but stopped short of calling Murphy to order them to adopt such a policy.

“Countless employers have already begun issuing vaccine mandates to help protect vulnerable employees and clients alike,” said Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera (D-Camden), who chairs the chamber’s Women and Children Committee. “I urge child care providers throughout our state to do the same and protect the children in their care.”

The New Jersey Chamber of Commerce announced Wednesday it would require its workers get vaccinated, and similar policies have become more common following the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. The extent to which child care facilities have adopted such mandates is unclear.

It might be a rarity, as a vaccine mandate for child care settings could further exacerbate what Zalkind said is a hiring crisis.

“It’s going to have some ramifications because what we’ve been hearing from child care programs is the difficulty in hiring staff,” Zalkind said.

Child care providers were not spared from the impact of the pandemic. In March 2020 Murphy ordered those facilities to limit their services to the children of essential workers. He lifted the restriction that June, but centers were still subject to a 50% capacity limit until May.

Employment at child care centers has fluctuated, from roughly 40,300 in 2019 to about 23,800 last summer to 28,700 in July, according to data published by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

The reason for the swell is unclear, but it may be driven by closures in the industry or a growing demand as more businesses move away from remote settings favored through much of the pandemic.

Zalkind said she favors a testing option for child care workers similar to the one offered under the state’s existing mandates.

“I think it should be consistent,” she said. “I don’t see the rationale behind distinguishing between children in a child care program versus children in school.”

A separate executive order requiring students, staff, and faculty wear masks in schools regardless of vaccination status issued in early August also does not extend to licensed child care centers. .

Masking for children at such centers is only required when separate groups are comingling. Otherwise, it is only encouraged.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.