State grants help sick students by providing in-class robots

28 Jul 2019 10:51 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Original Story Via Pennlive ...

Through an iPad on wheels that she remote-controlled from home, Ashlyn Brysiak rolled into third grade each day.

Brysiak, now an 11-year-old student from East Pennsboro School District, ran into an educational roadblock when she learned she had leukemia that would prevent her from going to school. But now, with technology backed by state grants, she was able to participate in class discussion, group projects and other social pieces of education.

“What she was missing without school was the social piece,” said Brysiak’s former teacher, Dawn Kepler. “Depression can be prevalent when students are out for so long.”

Now, more students who need to take extended absences will be able to appear in class virtually with the Keystone Telepresence Education Grant Program. The state law, just passed in June, will provide $300,000 in grants to Pennsylvania’s intermediate units, which serve as government liaisons for schools.

Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, introduced the bill and said he was inspired to create this legislation after spending time with pediatric cancer patients and their families. Although he’s never used a device like this (which he says look like iPads on top of Segways), Martin said he’s seen the impact it can have on students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to go to school.

“We want to keep kids on track not only with their education but with that social piece. They shouldn’t be isolated as they go through treatment or recovery,” he said. “This is a gap we needed to fill.”

The person controlling the robot can do it entirely independently - all the robot needs to work is an internet connection and a login to its online control center. The controller uses their keyboard to move it around and can see a wide view of what’s in front of the robot at eye level and on the ground.

Martin said about 7,000 Pennsylvania students could benefit from these grants every year. The robots can be used for students with long-term illnesses as well as shorter term ones, like badly broken bones.

Currently, the Capital Area Intermediate Unit owns six telepresence robots, all of which have been used by students in its schools, including private and charter schools in the region. But, each device can cost more than $3,000 - a heavy amount for families already handling hospital bills and other costs to pay.

Kepler said the grant program is important because it “levels the playing field” and allows all students to take advantage of this technology, regardless of how much money their district has.

The CAIU will apply for grants to purchase more updated robots. The six it owns right now were received as part of a pilot program from the telepresence brands Double and Kubi in 2015.

Kepler said although she ran into some technical issues with the pilot robot when Brysiak used it in 2016, the CAIU was well-prepared with quick fixes that only minimally disrupted class.

Martin added that the alternative is finding and hiring teachers certified to teach homebound students, which is a process that is both more expensive to do and less beneficial for students who would continue to miss out on opportunities to socialize.

Kepler worked with Brysiak at home as well as through the robot in class. Kepler said by sending home materials used in class with Brysiak, she was able to participate in experiments, art projects and hands-on learning so she wouldn’t feel ostracized.

Kepler also allowed students who physically attended class to drop off homework and other papers at Brysiak’s home in order to give her more one-on-one contact with the other kids in her class.

“Ashlyn was surrounded by a class that absolutely adored her,” Kepler said. “It brought some peace of mind to those students too, because they knew she was capable of learning and gave them reassurance that she was okay.”

Pennsylvania Association
of Intermediate Units

55 Miller Street

Enola, PA 17025-1640

TEL:  717.732.8464

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