My classmate, the robot: NY pupil attends remotely

For Devon, it was a chance to go to school, albeit remotely, for the first time in his life. He has eosinophilic esophagitis, caused by an allergic white blood cell that grows in his stomach and esophagus. He’s also got anaphylactic shock syndrome, which causes life-threatening allergic reactions to triggers including milk and peanuts.

Even though attacks have put him in the intensive care unit twice in the past 18 months, Devon is outgoing and energetic, a jokester whose personality better suits him to the school experience rather than home-schooling.

But after teachers at Devon’s previous school in the Buffalo suburb of West Seneca resisted the idea of having the VGo’s camera in the classroom, his mother persisted, and Devon was welcomed at the district’s Winchester Elementary.

It was added to Devon’s special education plan, and the cost — about $6,000 for the robot and $100 in monthly service fees — is being paid out of the district’s budget.

“We looked at it as a great opportunity,” Winchester Principal Brachmann says. “Where I think some people would have looked at what are the challenges, what are the problems, we never even had those conversations. It was just, how can we make this work?”

The technology broadens Devon’s school experience beyond what would be possible through a video chat. The only restrictions are physical.

The robot senses stairs and stops, but even they aren’t insurmountable because, at 18 pounds, the robot is light enough for a teacher to lift. Before moving forward, Devon scans the camera downward to make sure he won’t run into a classmate who might be crouching to tie a shoe. The VGo warns of large objects ahead.

“Walking down a hallway, seeing other kids,” Brachmann said. “You couldn’t expose somebody on a Skype session that way. It would just be like a TV screen. With this he really gets a feel, a sensation, of being there.”

On a recent weekday, Devon positioned himself in front of his home computer’s camera in a sunroom-turned-classroom in his Orchard Park home and dialed in to Mrs. Voelker’s room for the 9:10 a.m. start of school. He controls the VGo alongside teacher Sheri Voss, who comes to his house daily to help navigate and keep him on task.

When class was called to order, Devon stood at attention in front of his computer camera, holding a salute to his forehead as the class recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

“We don’t treat him any differently,” Voelker said. “He still has to turn in his homework. He still has to have his mother sign notebooks. He still has a job in this classroom — he’s the greeter.

“And he still has to pay attention — although there’s times I look and he’s off, the cat’s coming in the room.”

He’s heard through the VGo’s speakers. Voelker wears a microphone that amplifies the teacher’s voice, which helps all of the students, including Devon, hear her. Instead of raising his hand in class, Devon activates a light on the VGo.

“It’s really fun having him in the class,” said Caitlyn Bedient, a pixied brunette who sits a few desks away. “He has toys at home and we can show him the creations we make.”

Classmate Daisy Cook said it was a bit awkward at first when the technology would glitch, and it didn’t quite seem fair that Devon got to stay home and go to school.

“But now it’s kind of cool,” she said, her blue eyes widening, “because we can communicate together. It’s like he was never on the VGo.”

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