Robot puts ailing 9-year-old back in school — virtually

By Victor R. Martinez , El Paso Times

After nine months out battling leukemia, 9-year-old Jackie Rosales is back in her classroom at John Drugan School.

At least a virtual version of her is back.

Thanks to an iPad on wheels that displays her face on its screen, Jackie returned to class Wednesday morning, interacting with her peers and her teacher, Maria Pina.

“My favorite part was seeing my friends, I miss them a lot,” the young girl said from the kitchen table of her East Side home where she maneuvered the VGo telepresence robot around the classroom. “I miss playing with them on the playground. I miss them on Fun Fridays, that’s when we get to use the hula hoops.”

Jackie has been undergoing cancer treatment all school year and was being taught by a teacher who would visit her at home twice a week.

Now she can attend school, even if it’s not in the most traditional sense.

The iPad is hooked up to the robot, which streams two-way video. Jackie controls the robot using the arrow keys on her laptop.

“I like that I feel that I’m part of the class again,” she said.

“I was very happy and excited when I got to see them on Wednesday. The robot is really cool, too. It’s like I’m at two places at once, I’m here at home but I’m also at school because of the robot.”

She even personalized the robot with a silver and blue ribbon and a t-shirt that reads, “This Girl Can Change the World.” For Jackie, that means she can do anything she wants to.

The Socorro Independent School District’s Technology Services Department and campus administrators worked with Jackie and her mother, Claudia Rosales, on how to operate the robot stand-in.

“The robot has teleprescence with video and audio capabilities which gives Jackie the ability to control it remotely from her home,” said Miguel Moreno, the district’s instructional technology coordinator. “The robot has a video camera so the students can see her and hear each other. The robot is equipped with a set of lights not only for low-light situations, but also as a way to signal if she has a question or needs to get someone’s attention.”

Adalberto Garcia, the principal at John Drugan, said Jackie and a first-grade student are on medical absences.

“They’ve been out almost the entire school year, so I presented a plan to the director of technology because I really wanted my kids back even if it (was) virtually with the robot,” he said.

The first-grade student does not yet have a robot.

“We talked about the social and emotional aspects of learning and the importance of having interaction with your peers and your teacher,” Garcia said. “These kids haven’t had that all year. Their lives have been hospital rooms and their bedroom.”

And her classmates are excited to have their old friend back.

“Having the robot in the classroom and pretending it’s Jackie is fun,” said Danika Luevano, 10, Jackie’s friend since kindergarten. “Actually, we don’t have to pretend because we are going to treat her the same way. It’s cool because I get to see my best friend again.”

In Gael Mendoza’s eyes, Jackie lives in the robot.

“It’s pretty nice because I haven’t seen her all year,” said Gael, who has also known Jackie since kindergarten. “I’m really happy that she is coming back to school because I really miss her, especially how funny she is. She’s also very smart and kind. It’s going to be just like she’s really here.”

Rosales, Jackie’s mother, said she is happy her daughter can now communicate with friends.

“She felt very alone and isolated because she couldn’t see people or go places,” she said. “She couldn’t be around other children because she had to be very careful not to catch their germs.”

Rosales said the technology has helped her daughter rekindle her connection with her friends and participate in the classroom.

But more than that, it’s helped her daughter emotionally, she said.

“Before she got on the computer, she was very nervous and very emotional, she didn’t know what to do,” Rosales said. “But once she was connected to the classroom she was very excited and happy. All she wants to do is feel normal again.”