Virtual Inclusion: Have You Considered Use of Robots Rather than Providing Home Instruction?

Author: Heather Edwards, Attorney at Law

In California, when a special education student experiences an acute health problem which results in non-attendance at school for more than five (5) consecutive days, the local educational agency is required to inform the parent of the availability of individual instruction to be delivered in the pupil’s home, hospital, or other residential health facility (except a state hospital).  Then the LEA must convene an IEP team meeting to determine appropriate educational services for the student. 5 C.C.R. § 3051.17.  What happens if instead of home instruction, the parents request that a robot be included in the IEP which would allow their child to virtually attend school?

As new technology of this kind emerges, IEP teams need to know how to properly address parent requests for robots for homebound students.

For example, in Warren Hills Reg’l High Bd. of Educ., 70 IDELR 57 (SEA NJ 2017), a ninth grade student with Marfan syndrome endured multiple heart surgeries that required hospitalizations and at-home recovery. Additionally, physical challenges often prevented his attendance at school. The student reported having bouts of sadness and feelings of isolation from not being able to discuss information in class with his teachers and classmates. His parents requested that a robot be included in the IEP which would permit their son’s virtual attendance at school. The robot would allow the student to see from home what is happening in the classroom and interact with people at school through video communication. The district had concerns that the student would miss instruction in case of a breakdown in the technology or on days when he was unable to use the device due to his physical issues. It determined that home instruction was sufficient.

The parents filed a due process complaint. The hearing officer explained that determining whether a district has complied with the IDEA’s least restrictive environment (“LRE”) mandate requires deciding: 1) whether education in the regular classroom with use of supplementary aids and services can be achieved satisfactorily; and 2) if placement outside of the regular classroom is necessary for the child’s educational benefit, whether the district has included the child in school programs with children without disabilities to the maximum extent appropriate.

The hearing officer found that the district was predisposed to be against the inclusion or “even consideration” of the robot. The staff did “little to make inquiries, conduct its own due diligence, or generally explore how to make it work.” More specifically, no one from the district “made any real attempt to obtain information from other districts … [that] have successfully deployed this technology.”

As a result, the hearing officer determined that the district did not provide FAPE in the LRE because it declined to use or consider available technological modifications to allow the student access to direct instruction as it is delivered in the regular education setting.

What This Means for You:  Extended absence from the classroom can have negative educational and social consequences as students may fall behind in instruction, feel isolated from their peers, and experience loneliness and depression. Telepresence robots are now helping students with significant health conditions participate in class virtually. There are a variety of devices available (e.g.,  tablets on wheels that can be controlled remotely by a student, or stationary devices which sit on a desk and can be remotely controlled for panning and rotating the screen) which allow students a presence in the classroom again who would otherwise have little or no interaction with classmates or teachers.

When parents request what seems like high-tech assistive technology for their child, an LEA needs to keep an open mind.  The LEA is required to consider that request and explore whether such technology is appropriate to meet a student’s unique needs.  The plain meaning of “consider” is to reflect on or think about with some degree of care or caution. Therefore, IEP teams will want to at least research the technology, consult with the student’s doctors, consider how much training will be required of staff, classmates, and the student, address issues related to confidentiality for other students in the classroom, and discuss Internet connectivity issues.

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