Telepresence Robots Helping Sick Kids Stay In School

More than 6000 children in Australia miss out on school due to illness or injury.

When Megan Gilmour’s son took a rapid slide into critical illness, there was one thing he missed the most.

It was 2010 and Darcy, then 10 years old, spent days and months on end in hospital following a bone marrow transplant.

“He missed a lot of school -- about two years,” Gilmour told ten daily.

“He told us he was prepared to do that even though he didn’t know it was to save his life, but what mattered to him most was that he wanted to see his friends, and he wanted to know what was happening at school.”

“We saw him losing hope.”
Missing School co-founder Megan Gilmour appears via one of the robots she pioneered. Image: Ten Daily

Her son’s experience led Gilmour to pioneer an Australian-first -- and likely world-first -- telepresence robot that stands in for children in the classroom.

It’s a solution for the estimated 60,000 kids across the country who are missing out on blocks of school due to serious illness or injury.

According to ABS statistics, this is about 1.6 percent of students experiencing “non-negligible school absence”.

Gilmour sees it differently.

“They sit at hospital or at home, watching from the sidelines. We know that this hurts their learning, disrupts relationships with teachers and peers, and we know it diminishes their engagement for learning,” she said.

“Add that to the burden of illness and here’s what I know: they fight so hard, and we have to make sure their fight is worth it.”

In 2012, Gilmour co-founded the 'Missing School' organisation with two other mothers who had seen their children suffer long and painful separation.

“We started talking about what models of support there are out there for these kids and whose job it is to keep them connected to their education,” she said.

“We found nobody could answer that for us.”

With the help of a grant from the St George Foundation, the group commissioned and co-wrote a report with the Australian Research Alliance For Children and Youth in 2015.

“Following that, we realised the government was asking us for a solution, so we set out to find the best ideas that we could come up with. The robot technology is a key part of that.”

Missing School is now rolling out a national pilot program of mobile robots into schools across most states.

“They’re really intuitive,” Gilmour explained.

“It’s a matter of having a laptop, going to a website and dialling in. The robot wakes up and stands in the classroom for the student.”

She describes the “absolute look of joy” on children's faces as they are connected with their teachers and peers.

“The evidence shows that school connection helps these kids have a sense of hope, a sense of normalising their days and a belief that they are worth educating,” Gilmour said.  

Now, the mother and co-founder wants her organisation to become a thing of the past.

“We want to have at least one of these robots in every school in Australia. That needs to come from governments,” she said.

Her son Darcy turned 18 in May this year.

“You wouldn’t know that he had such a terrible time back then,” Gilmour said.

“I know that what we did for him to help him get back to school allowed him to have confidence again. I really want that for all children in this situation.”