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On April 24, Salisbury Township School District Director of Special Education Dr. Tracey Jacobi and Supervisor of Special Education Michael Vacaro hosted a forum for parents and guardians on creating suitable home learning environments for students.

The meeting was held online via Zoom and was free to those who registered for the forum in advance.

The educators covered several basic areas to help parents and guardians establish a strong basis for distance learning at any juncture, but specifically now in the face of the duration of the school year being completed at home due to COVID-19.

The first topic was creating a physical environment conducive to learning. The educators suggested creating learning centers, much like a classroom would have. Parents and guardians should designate a space in the home for learning and consider seating, work area, etc. when doing so. The learning areas should limit distractions and have tools needed for learning like pencils, headphones and crayons easily accessible. They said it is OK to have more than one learning area and to set aside different spaces for activities like reading, art and computer work.

Remembering it can be difficult for anyone, especially young children, to sit in any one spot for too long, it was also suggested parents and guardians maintain proximity and accessibility to kids in their learning centers so they can monitor student progress and provide help as needed.

The second topic discussed was creating a consistent schedule. It is helpful to students to have a consistent and predictable routine. Once the schedule is created, it can be displayed by simply writing it out, drawing it in pictures or in other creative ways, however the learner at home will be most receptive.

Setting aside specific times during the day to complete schoolwork, to eat lunch and snack and to pursue creative activities is a good way to set a routine to complete work as well as to enjoy leisure activities. Not every minute of the day needs to be scheduled, but building a framework for the expectations during the day will help mimic the rhythm of a regular day spent in the school building.

Jacobi pointed out this is a great time to use life skills and at-home activities as learning experiences. “You can use the family and home environment as a learning resource. Kids can help cook and bake. They can assist with reading a recipe and measuring ingredients,” Jacobi said. These are examples of activities reinforcing concepts taught in ways that are more traditional during school time.

The third point addressed during the forum was creating a balance of learning. Vacaro suggested removing children from a highly social environment could have an effect on children’s behavior and emotions.

“We must recognize the impact on the child,” Vacaro said. To make students feel less isolated, both Jacobi and Vacaro encouraged social interaction through Zoom sessions. Even if they do not have questions for their teacher, simply interacting in a meaningful way with someone outside the home can be a positive experience.

Other ways to lessen monotony during the day for students would be to include “movement breaks,” time for family engagement, like going for walks and board games and making sure parents are having discussions with their children about what they are experiencing emotionally. They also suggested including activities that shore up fine motor skills like Lego building and art time for younger students.

The fourth topic was accessing support for students and for parents acting as teachers. Both educators acknowledged that balancing teaching time and working from home time is not easy and the very nature of the current situation is a confusing and often emotional one.

If a parent or guardian feels they are struggling with how to explain current events or changes to daily life, there are support systems in place through the school district.

Jacobi and Vacaro made it very clear caregivers at home with students are not alone. School counselors are on the job and can be contacted by phone or email, as well as building principals, grade level teachers, case managers if your student has an IEP or GIEP, service staff for speech, occupational therapy or physical therapy and even technical support for student laptops and other digital learning environment issues.

The forum closed with an open question and answer session where parents shared successes, tips and voiced concerns for children who are adjusting to a new way of life, at least for the next couple of months. The slideshow presented at the forum is expected to be available through the district website.