Peyton Walton went to see the governor of Maryland recently and brought along her four-foot robot known as PAVS — Peyton’s Awesome Virtual Self. The 10-year-old, who is battling cancer, uses the rolling robot to connect with her Poolesville school when she can’t be there.
Her family wants other children with illnesses to have the same chance at the latest technology. So they made a pitch to Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who also is a cancer survivor.
They say they were encouraged by Hogan’s interest and that the governor and the fifth-grader hit it off.
“The two of them just got each other,” said Lynn Schaeber, Peyton’s mother, recalling that her daughter and the state’s top elected leader compared notes about their hair beginning to return after chemotherapy.
The meeting with Hogan last month came as school administrators across the region are paying closer attention to the possibilities that robots and other types of technology offer in terms of linking homebound students to their classrooms.
The idea was front and center Friday as assistant superintendents from across Maryland gathered for a monthly meeting that included a panel of speakers describing children’s experiences. Officials from two companies — Double Robotics and Cisco Systems — made presentations, as did Schaeber.
“I think there were quite a few people there who were very excited about it,” said Val Emrich, director of instructional technology for the Maryland State Department of Education, who suggested that school systems could create a lending library with such technology.
Peyton used her robot — which resembles a small Segway with a rolling base and an iPad at the top — to remotely attend classes last fall at Poolesville Elementary while she received radiation therapy in New York City. By connecting from afar, she could join in student discussions, talk to teachers, see friends and navigate her classroom.
The Maryland gathering came as Fairfax County school officials have taken steps in the same direction, with one robot in use since Jan. 4 at Colvin Run Elementary and another planned for a county high school in coming weeks.
“We’re very happy with it,” said Kurt Mills, the Fairfax school system’s program manager for out-of-school support, who said it has been good for the students and makes economic sense. The robot Fairfax purchased cost about $3,000, he said.
When a student has a long-term illness, teachers typically are sent to students’ homes to deliver instruction for some period of hours each week. “Over time, it’s much less expensive than one-on-one instruction,” Mills said.
Schaeber is hoping to help make robots and other technology available to homebound children facing medical crises in every Maryland county. She said she knows of just one other Maryland child using a robot: a sixth-grader at Monsignor Slade Catholic School in Glen Burnie.
Kelly Kolenda said her family heard about Peyton’s robot and within a week had one for her daughter Emily, a sixth-grader who has battled a neurological autoimmune disorder since 2012 and is in and out of the hospital.
“When a child has missed this much time in school, just being there and getting to see her friends and her teacher and her classroom is the most important thing,” Kolenda said. “It connects her to the life she’s been away from for so long.”
Peyton’s family said the technology helped her stay on track to finish fifth grade on time, but that the social and emotional benefits were more important. “This was a critical aspect to keeping her life looking forward,” Schaeber said. “It kept her being a regular kid.”
When family members went to see Hogan, there were WiFi troubles that kept Peyton’s robot from working. But they showed Hogan a teleconferencing technology Peyton also has used to connect with her former school in Warren, N.J.
Hogan was receptive, Schaeber said.
The governor has fared well with his treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, announcing in November that his medical scans show no signs of cancer following 18 weeks of intensive chemotherapy.
Doug Mayer, a Hogan spokesman, said the governor enjoyed meeting with Peyton and seeing technology that would allow students with special needs and grave illnesses to participate more fully in schools.
The administration is actively exploring what can be done to expand such technology in the state, Mayer said.
As they spoke, Peyton removed the knit cap she almost always wears to show Hogan how her hair is beginning to grow back — something she rarely does, her mother said.
“He was a very nice and understanding man,” Peyton said, through her mother.
The visit with the governor came shortly before Peyton, who was diagnosed with a rare liver cancer over the summer, received her first clear CT scan after treatment. At school, one of her classmates told others the good news, her mother said.
Everyone stood up and cheered.