Alabama Student Among First to Attend Class Via Robot

A Limestone County elementary student, who is participating in a homebound education program due to a medical condition, has been provided with a telepresence robot to help her keep up with class work.

by Jessica Barnett, The News Courier / August 9, 2019

(TNS) — A Limestone County student thanked the school board Tuesday for allowing her to be among the first in Alabama to try a new kind of homebound education program.

Lily Teeter was a student at Creekside Elementary when she was diagnosed with type 2 autoimmune hepatitis, a disease in which the body attacks its own liver. She was placed on an organ transplant list and kept out of school while she underwent treatment for the disease.

Like most school districts in the United States, she became part of a homebound education program in which a teacher visited her home five to 10 hours a week for one-on-one studies. However, as Tara Bachus, director of special education for Limestone County Schools, pointed out, "there's no way you can cover the amount they miss in five to 10 hours a week."

So she set out to find something new.

"We know research shows other than teacher and student engagement, students learn best through their peers and peer learning," Bachus said in a video that was played at the board meeting. "How do we bring in peers, not just for academics but social-emotional (engagement)? How are we going to be able to provide that for students who once again have to learn in a homebound model for long periods of time?"

The answer was a telepresence robot. In the simplest terms, the robot is a tablet with a camera and microphone, on a stick with wheels at the bottom. However, this simple tool was a big deal for Teeter and her family.

From home, she could move the robot around Creekside, visiting her classes, interacting with students and seeing friends.

"It would motivate me get up in the morning and get dressed, because I knew I was going to see my friends, even though I'm not at school," Teeter said.

Her mother, Gina Teeter, said it was a way to bring back Lily's old self, the little girl who was excited to get up in the morning and get ready for school. She said she didn't know what to expect when Bachus first presented the idea, but the confidence boost was obvious in her daughter.

"She loves school," Gina Teeter said. "She even told me, 'My liver may not be working, but I don't want my brain to go to mush.'"

The use of telepresence robots is still fairly new, and Bachus told board members that Limestone County Schools is the first district in the state to try such technology. According to Bachus, two or three students each year in the district will have an illness or injury that prevents them from coming to school, possibly indefinitely, to receive an education.

With telepresence robots like the one approved for Lily Teeter, "they can be in an outdoor classroom, they can go to the library, they can go to P.E., they can go to science lab," Bachus said. "They can be in a small group or centers in their classroom. They're learning across multiple settings and environments because they become mobile."

Bachus said Teeter's case is "a testament to the board" and how they "truly believe all kids can." Teeter, who is now off the transplant list, thanked everyone who helped her succeed in education despite the medical setback.

"I just want to say thank you to everyone who made this possible, because it's so much fun to be able to interact with my classroom and see my friends," Teeter said. "The truth is, I was really missing out on school, and I didn't want my brain to go to mush, but I also wanted to, as a kid, interact with friends. That's what a kid wants."

©2019 The News Courier (Athens, Ala.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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