By Kate Malongowski, Beaver County Times
NORTH SEWICKLEY TWP. During a math lesson in Chelsea Sharek’s kindergarten class on a recent Friday morning, her young pupils are split into pairs to play a matching game.
Among the pairs are Ford Sniezek and Aly Alvin. Aly encourages her Riverside Kindergarten Center classmate with each match he’s able to get. She carefully shows him each card she picks up.
“I would pick up two, and then I might have a match. And if I don’t, I’ll put them back down. And if he has a match, he would just keep them,” she said.
Later on that morning, during another class lesson, pupils shoot a small basketball into a can after completing another activity. Another pupil helps Ford throw the ball.
“Great job, Ford,” she said, clapping for him after he got it in the basket.
And more pupils are eager to assist him with passing out doughnuts during snack time. His friend and classmate Oliver Kraus often walks him to another classroom down the hall.
It’s just another day in Sharek’s kindergarten class, but for Ford, it’s an immersive experience he’s able to do virtually. Six-year-old Ford, of Franklin Township, has spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition that affects muscle control. He attends class using a VGo robot, allowing him to see and experience the Riverside kindergarten classroom from home.
The VGo is a thin robot that stands about 4 feet tall, with 360-degree steering flexibility and a camera that tilts up and down. A screen projecting a live video of him sits on top of the robot.
Kayla Sniezek, Ford’s mother, worked with the school district last year to find a way for him to have an immersive kindergarten experience. The school district then purchased the robot after test driving several models.
“He’s their classmate, he’s their friend,” Sharek said. “Whenever Ford calls in, it’s like, Ford’s calling! They all greet him. They all, throughout the day, help him with anything.”
Many of youngsters wore blue “Cure SMA” and “Team Ford” bracelets. The school raised more than $700 through bracelet sales to go to his family.
Sharek had a classroom discussion with her pupils at the beginning of the school year to talk about Ford and his health condition.
“There’s never been another question ever since,” she said.
Ford attends classes for a few hours each morning and afternoon, and is delivered handouts once a week during one-on-one teaching time with special education teacher Emily Smith.
But it’s not just academic classes he’s able to attend. He goes to art, music and library classes, too. And he has also gone on field trips with his classmates, like at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Ford plans to attend his kindergarten graduation ceremony with his peers at the end of May.
“This virtual presence, the robot, it really has opened up a whole new world to him that otherwise he wouldn’t be able to participate in,” said Smith, who added the VGo can go anywhere that has a wireless internet connection. “And honestly, the students here, the staff, the administration, they adore him. I mean, I know this has been rewarding for him, but it’s been just as rewarding, if not more rewarding, for us.”
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, SMA is a genetic disorder that affects between one in 6,000 and one in 10,000 people. The condition also suppresses his immune system. In Ford’s case, he is nonverbal and cannot sit up on his own because of SMA. The condition does not, however, affect his cognitive ability. He communicates with his teachers answering yes and no questions by squeezing his hand.
Kayla Sniezek has seen an improvement since using the VGo to attend classes. She assists him through the day with school activities and said that while the VGo is a great classroom tool, it’s Sharek and his classmates that make the experience.
“The ability for us to move around the room freely and that kind of stuff is amazing, but if you have that and a teacher that still doesn’t choose to include your child, it’s still just a robot,” Sniezek said. “And she does a far better job than I ever imagined his first year of school was going to be.”
Sniezek said she was initially worried about how children would react to Ford’s participation in the classroom, how they might treat him. But she’s been relieved with how supportive Sharek’s class and his classmates have been.
“Kids are so innocent, and they literally just exude love,” she said. “They’re not judgmental.”
Last school year, during preschool, Ford sometimes tuned into classroom using Facetime on an iPad, but it wasn’t immersive. He wasn’t a part of the classroom community. With the VGo, he participates in class much like any other student.
From home, he lies in bed, facing a large television screen that projects his view of the classroom through the robot. His dog Gigi often sits beside him.
Students greet Ford with a enthusiastic hello and goodbye each day.
“Our big thing is including him with everybody else and exposing him to as much as possible,” Smith said. “He’s really been a joy to work with and a pleasure for really, everybody in the district whose had the opportunity of interacting with him.”