There are still plenty of unknowns regarding how virtual learning will impact New Jersey's youngest students.

It's during their earlier years in grade school that kids are expected to adopt critical life skills such as organization, making decisions and controlling their emotions.

And on a virtual platform, which many districts are relying on completely for the start of the 2020-2021 academic year, kids are missing out on forming positive relationships with others that serve as the foundation for developmentally appropriate learning, experts say.

"Positive relationships are not only the launching point for executive functioning skills, but also reduce the stress — big, small and invisible — giving children the resiliency to move through life," said Meghan Tavormina, president of the New Jersey Association for the Education of Young Children. "When we take that out of the equation, we're unsure what that's going to look like."

Many of the youngest grade-schoolers, those headed into kindergarten in September, missed out on finishing up early education experiences in pre-K to get them ready for the next step, Tavormina noted.

"They're not things that can't be revisited; children aren't going to have large voids forever. But we definitely need to be intentional about how we guide these children," she said.

All public and private schools in New Jersey, from pre-K through grade 12, were ordered to close in the middle of March in an effort to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. In-person teaching can resume this coming school year, but most districts are starting with either all-remote learning or a hybrid model permitting some in-school learning.

While older students may be well-versed on the use of laptops or tablets, and can understand that they need to be in front of such a device in order to learn, those attributes aren't as commonplace among New Jersey's younger minds. Help at home from older siblings or adults, Tavormina added, isn't a given.

"Is that child able to sit by the computer with an adult that can guide them and help them troubleshoot, or is that child being asked to sit in front of a computer and teach themselves with the virtual support of a teacher?" Tavormina said.

Child care centers in New Jersey are opening spots for school-aged children who need a place to be when learning online, if a conducive environment isn't available at home.

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