Matt Forkas actually likes going to school.
But last year, when the 10-year-old fourth-grader was diagnosed with a form of childhood leukemia, he spent most of the school year at home while he underwent a grueling treatment program through Inova Fairfax Hospital.
Matt kept up with his studies through a Fairfax County teacher who showed up at his Vienna home, but she couldn't provide that important time with friends that comes during each school day, alongside learning fractions and practicing spelling.
But with the help of the county school system, two $99 Web cameras and Len Forkas, Matt's persistent father, Matt got that socializing time without leaving home.
Hooked up to his classroom at Forestville Elementary via the webcams and computers, Matt could sign on as many as three times a day and talk to his buddies in class as well as get face-to-face time with his teacher while catching up on the schoolyard banter.
Matt, now a fifth-grader and back in school, said it helped him a lot. "It cheered me up," he said. "It gave me something to do. Instead of just being alone here with my mom all day, I could talk to some of my friends."
Matt is the first of many students with serious health problems whom county school officials and Inova Fairfax doctors plan to equip with home computers and webcams so the students can can see, hear and talk with teachers and classmates while in the hospital or at home recuperating.
Like other school systems, Fairfax already sends teachers into the homes of students who are too ill to attend classes for extended periods and offers online courses for homebound high school students.
But the new webcam program is intended to supplement the visiting-teacher service for homebound elementary school students, said Mary Shaughnessy, the school system's director of student services.
The goal, she said, is to help those children feel involved with their school and stay plugged into their social network at a particularly frightening and lonely time.
The school system has purchased the hardware to implement the program with a $25,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation. And it is working with Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children, which has received $100,000 in grants from the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation in the past two years to set up a similar system at the hospital so that children there can use the Internet to maintain connections with their homes, schools and communities.
But these programs weren't up and running when Len Forkas came on the scene last year. Matt, who was diagnosed in January 2002 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments at Inova Fairfax Hospital for Children. Because of the treatments, he couldn't return to school or see his friends very often.
Matt's serious illness was traumatic enough, said his dad, who is 43. But "for a 10-year-old, the second hardest thing is being ripped from school, which is your whole social network. . . . Dealing with his illness was one thing, but dealing with his loneliness was just as important."
Forkas, who runs a real estate development business, heard about plans for the Fairfax school system's program and said he decided it was just the thing his son needed.
But getting it up and running wasn't easy. Despite the time and money the county had invested in its program, no one had activated it. So Forkas spent three months working with the school system's staff and administrators to overcome various policy and technological barriers. By April, Matt's system was up and running. His teacher had set up a sign-up sheet in his classroom, and kids could arrange to talk to him early in the day, after lunch and later in the afternoon.
Even though he didn't always use the capability three times each day, Matt said, it was enormously helpful to check in with his classmates frequently. When he returned to school in September, his parents said, Matt was able to slip seamlessly back into the school routine.
But that's not the end of the story. While school officials work to implement the ambitious plan, Len Forkas is forging ahead with his plan to help other children who might need the webcams right now.
In November, he said he raised $10,000 in pledges from supporters by running a 50-mile ultra-marathon in Western Maryland. Working with Growing Hope, a local charity that helps youngsters with cancer and their parents, Forkas plans to use the money to hook up other homebound children who have serious cancers with their schools.
"We're not trying to educate kids," said Forkas. "We're just trying to help rebuild that social connection," so kids can just be kids again.