During her sixth-grade social-studies class at Octorara Intermediate School in Atglen, Chester County, Jilly DeStephano acted like any 12-year-old – lost in chatter with her good friends Melanie and Katie.
"Jilly, I like your hair," said Melanie, admiring her neat brunette pigtails, which Jilly flicked in response. Suddenly, their teacher Melissa Fanelli showed up.
"Jilly, did you get the classwork I emailed you?"
"Got it," answered Jilly, who was actually a couple of miles away, sitting at her dining-room table at home in Christiana, just past the edge of Philadelphia in Lancaster County.
Inside the Octorara classroom, her friends and teacher had been talking to her image on an iPad atop a skinny robot, called a "Perfect Attendant" – essentially a pole on Segway wheels that Jilly controls from a computer. The device allows her to attend school virtually, even as she copes with her exhausting chronic medical condition, mitochondrial disease, at home.
The high-tech helper – Jilly calls it "the Double," its brand name – is one of more than 1,000 "remote presence" or "telepresence" robots that have been placed in America's classrooms this decade. The robots allow kids who have difficulty attending school because of a medical condition to get much of the experience remotely – taking quizzes, goofing with friends, even going to lunch or on field trips.
"Sometimes I'm too tired to actually go to school," said Jilly, who has been coping since she was very young with the illness, in which cells fail to properly produce energy. By third and fourth grade she was spending more time at home being taught by a teacher than in class. So when the school came to her last year to ask if she would test out the robot, Jilly and her family were enthusiastic.
"They told me it was a pole on wheels," she said. "I was: 'Hey, it's cool. Oh my gosh, it looks like me.' "
Jilly is one of three students currently using a Double on loan from the Chester County Intermediate Unit, which started the program 2½ years ago. The two other students are in Owen J. Roberts School District — an elementary school student recovering from open heart surgery and a middle schooler who recently used the device from her room at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia while undergoing treatment for leukemia.
The IU owns three of the $4,000 machines but plans to buy another because of demand, said Sam Ewing, assistant director of student services for the IU. So far there's been no charge for using the Double, but starting with the next user the IU will charge districts $37.29 per day, which includes tech support and training in how to use the bot. For schools, that's far less than the cost of a homebound tutor, typically $40 to $60 per hour.
Officials in Chester County say the success of the space-age accessories in providing an almost normal school day for these kids with difficult medical issues has been nothing short of remarkable.
"It's amazing, how that generation … it's natural for them," said Paul Sanfrancesco, the director of technology at Owen J. Roberts, noting that talking to a screen atop a robot was more of a challenge for the teachers at first. The kids, on the other hand, escort the robot from class to class as if their actual friend were present. "They wave to her when she comes down the hall," he marveled.
Makenna Massi, 13, a student at Owen J. Roberts Middle School, recently made front-page news in Philadelphia for her bond with several Eagles players – including tight end Zach Ertz, who filmed a video pep talk for her – on their road to the Super Bowl championship. Her dad, Rich Massi, said that since January the robot has helped Makenna in a different way than her favorite football stars.
"She doesn't feel left out," said Massi, who said his daughter attended school remotely both while at CHOP and during recuperation at home in North Coventry. "This gives her a semblance of getting the same instruction as her friends, getting to see them a little bit. It's much better than the alternative."
Students receive computers to go along with the bots. They are trained to maneuver the bot through school with the arrows on their computer and the help of a friend or teacher on site as a guide.
Some students in other parts of the country are testing the outer limits of the robots, including practicing along with the school choir or going along on field trips, which can be tricky when it comes to holding a WiFi connection, the biggest problem most kids have encountered so far. Several years ago, one student in South Carolina even outfitted her VGo model robot with pink ribbons and a tutu, renaming it Princess VGo.
For Jilly, the Double has allowed her to stay home on the days when she needs to conserve her strength – energy for other school activities like "bubble ball," a recent Wiffle ball tournament, floor hockey, or playing the flute.
"That's really what the Double gives her," her mother, Ashley DeStephano, said. "Otherwise, Jilly's body doesn't have enough energy for other things. Her conserving energy in this way allows her to be a kid."
Jilly, she said, loves school and was depressed when she had to be taught alone at home. "She was just bummed. She missed that social interaction. She always felt left out," she said.
An animal lover whose favorite classes are art and science, Jilly says her goal is to become a veterinarian or to rescue sloths, her favorite animal, in the Amazon rainforest.
But first, she has to master ancient Egypt in social studies, a class she attended on a recent afternoon with her Double at her desk, while she faced her computer in the dining room back home. Her two dogs – Hero, a chihuahua, and Pippy, an old shih tzu – were with her, and her mom was nearby.
Working with her friends Melanie and Katie, Jilly researched facts about Egypt's Old Kingdom. As the girls chatted and Jilly flashed thumbs up from time to time, their teacher leaned in to check on their progress. "You better not be talking about boys," she said.
Later, Fanelli said that despite the occasional glitch – sometimes Jilly's face will pixilate because of spotty Wi-Fi, or the class will hear the sound of Jilly's mom in the background – the robot has been a boon to the sixth grader's learning.
"To you and I, oh my gosh … it's like George Jetson," Fanelli said. But the kids "interact with her like they do in the classroom."
Indeed, between grappling with the ancient Egyptians and how to spell pharaoh, Jilly bantered with her friends and laughs when Melanie showed off a hand puppet. A few minutes before class was over, Melanie guided her to her next class.