With Beaumont Children’s robot, high school students can learn algebra and U.S. history without leaving their hospital rooms.
By Alana Blumenstein
Photography by Morgan Heinzmann
For many kids with cancer, frequent hospital visits can make it difficult to keep up socially and academically. Yet a new program from Beaumont Children’s Hospital in Royal Oak is making it easier to maintain grades and friendships by bringing school to patients.
With a new student robot program, teen patients can attend school from the comfort of their hospital beds. There are five robots, managed by Beaumont Children’s Teacher Janis Traynor, currently placed in different schools. The pilot program — funded by Children’s Miracle Network and The Gilbert Family Foundation Adolescent & Young Adult Program — is in its second year and the first of its kind. “We’re so proud to be the first and only,” Traynor says.
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, one of their biggest worries is what will happen with their school attendance, says Traynor. Unlike their parents, children often don’t understand the diagnosis at first. They wonder about missing too much school and if they will still graduate if they’re in high school.
Traynor has helped patients stay in school through treatment. For every child, she coordinates with teachers, delivers homework and tutors as needed. Learning and keeping busy is part of the healing process, she explains. But even with her help, frequent school absences make it difficult to keep up with class work.
That’s why Beaumont is going one step further to ensure patients continue their education. Their new student robot program allows teens to attend school, even if they are hospitalized. With the program, a robot on wheels is placed in the teen’s regular classroom. The patient can then access the robot from his or her computer, using arrows on their keyboard to control the robot’s movement.
With both downward and forward-facing cameras, students can easily navigate hallways to get to their classes. Patients can even access the robot from home.
When a school agrees to receive a robot, it keeps the machine for the duration of the patient’s stay. Traynor says the schools’ transitions have been better than expected. “In the beginning, it was a novelty, and it was a big deal,” she says. “And then it became very normal.”
For 17-year-old leukemia patient Theresa O’Connor, the robot allowed her to still experience her junior year at Romeo High School. “When I was (at Beaumont), I wasn’t allowed to leave or go to school,” she says. “It really helped me to stay in school and keep up with all of my work.”
Theresa was diagnosed last November and has been the longest program participant. Having the robot helped her stay on track academically and stay in touch with friends at school. “As a junior, it’s hard,” Traynor says. “This connected her beyond anything we could have offered just coordinating school services.”
With a few clicks of her keyboard, Theresa could listen and participate in class discussions. She says interacting with her teachers and classmates made it a lot easier to manage school. “It was also very nice to see all of my friends,” she adds.
Theresa’s classmates were relieved to see her in good health. After her hospitalization, Traynor says rumors started to spread about her condition, worrying her friends. Their fears were set aside when Theresa rolled into her classrooms, virtually. “They saw that she was OK,” Traynor explains. “She was just her normal self going to school.”
When Theresa returned to school via the robot, a community of friends, teachers and staff rallied around her. “She had people supporting her and offering her encouragement,” Traynor says. “Her classes were unified in that.”
Recently, Theresa finished her treatment and is finally returning to school this year — this time in person. Thanks to her student robot, she is entering her senior year like she never left. “I’m completely done,” she says. “I’m able to go back to school my senior year and actually be there.”
Looking forward, Beaumont officials hope other hospitals will follow in their footsteps.
“We’ve learned a lot,” Traynor says and encourages others to model programs like theirs. “These kids miss school,” she says. “This is their social life. This is their future.”