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Pilot SAISD Robot Program Allows Chronically Ill Student To Attend Class

8-year-old Miranda Garcia is playing a guessing game with her classmates. She’s a normal 3rd grader, except that when school's in session, she’s at home due to a chronic illness.

Like most kids with her kind of condition, she can’t attend school, and has a teacher visit several times a week, but the robot allows her to view into the classroom, see the teacher and interact with her class.

Her classmates see her through a video screen in the vertical robot on wheels and Garcia controls the robot from laptop at home using the Wi-Fi in the school to connect to the device.

"She can control the movement, but she can also stay at her desk, she can respond, and most importantly kids can see her, they can see her face," said SAISD Executive Director for Special Education, Vangie Aguilera.

The robot is made by a company called Vgo and is on loan to SAISD for the pilot. Miranda is the first student in South Texas to use it. She said it helps when she feels she’s too sick to go to school.

"It feels like I’m right there in school and it gives me the opportunity to see my teacher and my friends," Miranda said through her Skype-style connection.

"It feels like I'm right there in school and it gives me the opportunity to see my teacher and my friends."

A little help from her friends

Miranda’s teacher, Belinda de Luna, said working with her is like dealing with any other student with a only a few exceptions.

"The interaction’s pretty good," De Luna said. "She knows that she has to follow rules and routines like everybody else, she can’t just walk around the classroom with her robot. If she has a question, she can’t just shout it out; she turns on a little light around her face."

Garcia also gets a little help from Esther Rose, a student who sits next to her.

"I give her directions, and I tell her what to do so I can help her move around so she doesn’t bump into anything," Ester said.

Program could expand

The vertical robot costs around $6,000 per unit. The district is using it for free right now, but the option could be provided to other home bound children in the future.

With the ability to move around, Aguilera envisions it being used at secondary campuses where students have to travel from class to class.

"We want to see how it works at a secondary campus, so we’ll try that next, where you have older students and how receptive they are to the robot or how distracting it could be," Aguilar said. "In elementary, we have not found that to be distracting."

Although the robot provides the ability for students to attend school, it will not reduce the number of hours where a teacher visits the student at home. Aguilera said if it expands, it will not come at a cost to parents of the students using it.

Watch Miranda in action around her classroom:

Joey Palacios can be reached atJoey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules