A virtual classroom was the best choice for seventh grader Austin Heflin, but that doesn’t mean his parents don’t look forward to the day the Tomlinson Middle School student will return to a traditional classroom.
Ladonna Heflin said she and her husband carefully weighed the decision to remove Austin from traditional classes as they moved closer to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, but multiple issues ultimately made virtual learning the best choice.
“We had been contemplating which was the best fit for the family,” she said, explaining that in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, her son has asthma and severe food allergies. “With all the changes, with the pandemic, we knew they’d be eating in the classrooms. And, for food allergy parents, that adds another layer of stress.”
A final issue was the deciding factor: On Aug. 4, 2020, Austin’s father was diagnosed with cancer.
“That kinda sealed the deal,” Heflin said, of the need to protect the family.
The decision means Austin is spending his second year of middle school in a virtual setting, working from home on computers rather than sitting in classrooms in a school he had grown to love when he was there for sixth grade.
“It’s been so different from regular school and the classroom,” Heflin said, explaining that lack of connection to classmates and teachers was evident in the fall. “The first semester was really a struggle, to be honest.”
Heflin said the family had multiple adjustments to make in Fall 2020, so the lack of connection with those Austin had come to know at Tomlinson was especially difficult. She said she remembers how happy her son was in 2019, easily fitting into a new school setting while dealing with his food allergies. While the Spring 2020 semester started well, students left for Spring Break in mid-March and didn’t return to campus, finishing that school year virtually as the pandemic ramped up.
“It was going from the top of the world to feeling like it was a different situation,” Heflin said. “I think it was just so different.”
Heflin said the first semester of this school year was a struggle and her son lost his motivation.
“He’s never had problems with his grades at all,” she said, explaining that in that first virtual semester, he got behind in his work and from there, “it was a real struggle. Once you get behind, it’s hard to get caught back up.”
She said love and support from the Tomlinson staff helped Austin and other students make it through the first semester, and when school resumed in January, her son’s motivation was back, he is more driven and his grades have returned to normal. Heflin said the reason is the change the district made, specifying all teachers must set daily Zoom meetings with students Monday through Thursday.
“Zoom meetings are a huge factor for him, personally,” Heflin said, explaining while those sessions hold students more accountable, they also provide more feedback. “Right now, Zoom meetings are all that he needs to keep up. The teachers are checking in with the kids, so they feel ‘If I’m not getting it, I can get help.’ “
Heflin said that isn’t a criticism of teachers; her husband is a teacher and she knows teachers are struggling with the changes brought by virtual education as much as students are. Heflin said teachers returned to classes after Christmas Break with more insight and motivation, making the changes that helped Austin and others adjust to virtual classes that will take some of them — including Austin — to the end of the school year.
But, she acknowledges the changes aren’t a substitute for in-person learning and interaction with others.
“My son is very social. He’s always been that way,” she said. “He had had such an incredibly great first half of the year last year. It went from wonderful to this. This is totally different.”
It’s also a change for the family, in terms of ensuring education protocols are followed. Heflin said because Austin is a seventh grader, he can be trusted to do his work, although she and her husband check on him.
“You have to stay on top of it. Once you get behind, it is very difficult to get caught up,” she said.
While her son now is thriving, Heflin said she knows she wants her son to return to a traditional classroom. But, that will depend on the pandemic and when conditions are safe to return.
“I know he will thrive there,” she said. “He wants to be back.”