How robots bring homebound Maryland students into the classroom

Districts of Distinction honoree update: Anne Arundel County Public Schools helps students stay connected socially and emotionally with telepresence robots.

In Anne Arundel County Public Schools, students who are homebound due to serious illnesses or injuries have access to six hours of home tutoring per week. However, they are socially isolated from their classmates and classroom learning.

Challenged with facilitating in-person learning for these at-home students, the Maryland district initially purchased four telepresence robots for the 2015-16 school year.

Since the program was recognized as a District of Distinction in July 2018, the Digital Classroom program has expanded with grant support and funding from local organizations, donors and businesses, says Carol Ann McCurdy, director of partnerships, development and marketing. Anne Arundel County’s 128 schools are now serviced by 18 robots.

Although only seven have been deployed through October 2019, requests for robots often increase as the school year progresses and it appears less likely that a child will be able to return to school, says Patrick J. Malone, an online campus specialist. Students using the robots include those dealing with autoimmune issues, mental health challenges and other medical treatments, in addition to students recovering from surgery.

Armed with interactive video capabilities, the remote-controlled robots enable students to participate in real-time classroom discussions and presentations and to connect socially with friends and teachers. Tests for homebound students are administered by tutors.

“As a district, we have the infrastructure and capability to support the robots,” says M. Stephanie Kelly, senior manager. “We did need to expand Wi-Fi coverage where we found wireless dead zones so that the robots would work. Challenges like dead spots in elevators were overcome with simple solutions such as having a person carry the robot up and down the stairs.”

The district’s future plans include upgrading several robots with greater accessibility options for students with physical or visual impairments.

Leaders are also exploring other uses for the robots, including distance learning. For example, with a robot, students can virtually attend foreign language, advanced math and additional classes offered at other district schools. The robots’ telepresence capabilities have also enabled Anne Arundel County council members and district staff to be present at meetings while on reserve duty or sick or recovering from surgery at home.

“You forget it is a robot and engage with the person who is calling in,” says McCurdy. “Enabling a student to connect, participate and laugh with their classmates and teachers gives them more hope and positivity. We see the smiles on their faces and how that puts happy tears in parents’ eyes.”

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