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How robots are connecting sick kids with the classroom

Brittany Lee Waller

“There around 60,000 kids in Australia with serious illness or injury, who are at home or in hospital, watching from the sidelines and missing school. Some miss days and weeks, others miss months and even years,” explains Megan Gilmour, Chair and Co-Founder of MissingSchool.

This year at TEDxSydney, Megan took to the St.George stage in the Hub to tell her personal story with attendees, sharing the reason she was driven to start MissingSchool, an organisation dedicated to connecting seriously sick kids to their regular schools.

In 2010, Megan’s then 10-year-old son, Darcy took a rapid slide into critical illness. Three rare blood disorders (one pre-Leukaemia) saw him fast-tracked into a bone marrow transplant – a last line treatment that kills if it doesn’t cure.

“Darcy missed a straight 18 months of school. That isolation hurt him more than anything,” said Megan.

“At the 18-month point, Darcy started to give up. Why endure the suffering when the life he was fighting for had already disappeared?”

Determined to show Darcy he’d survive, and that school mattered because he had a future, Megan set out to connect him with his classroom, literally. But the barriers mounted and Megan rapidly realised that kids like Darcy are often overlooked by the education system.

MissingSchool officially began in 2012, born out of a Canberra lounge room, by three mums, including Megan, following similar experiences with their children.

“We came together after our children survived critical and life-threatening illnesses of some duration. Our sons were invisible in their need for education and contact with their classmates.”

They knew that maintaining a connection with school would offer kids like their own a sense of normality – ultimately allowing them to keep up-to-date with their education, social communities and ease the transition back into everyday life.

In 2015, through a report funded by the St.George Foundation, MissingSchool took this problem to the national stage.

“We got the Prime Minister’s attention, and the attention of a nation through media all over the country. We then advocated to the Commonwealth to commission the first government report on this issue and then advised on its methodology.”

Megan was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to discover what the best in the world do – allowing her to visit Finland, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium, UK and Canada mid last year where she uncovered best practice in the field.

Winning the Inspire Grant given by the St.George Foundation after pitching a national pilot for telepresence robots to connect sick students to their classrooms, MissingSchool was set to start connecting children across the country with their schools.

“The telepresence robots stand in the classrooms of sick kids and connect them. By putting robots in their classrooms, we are enabling sick students to see and hear their teachers and classmates, in real time, and be seen and heard. They even have the ability to move their robot around from home or hospital via their laptop keyboard.”

The pilot has been live for less than a year, and MissingSchool has already achieved collaboration with education and health systems around the country.

“Up until this point, we have processed 64 enquiries for robots and have had conversations with 59 schools. We are striving to place at least 200 robots by the end of 2020,” declares Megan.

“There is nothing like the joy of seeing a kid who’s doing it really tough, dial into their classroom and light up when they see their teachers and classmates. Their classmates and teachers love it too.”

Megan and MissingSchool are changing how sick kids are educated and cared for all over Australia and it certainly doesn’t seem they’ll stop until the job’s done.

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