Sunday April 26 2015
Laval's English newspaper since 1993.
Journal anglais de Laval depuis 1993.

Technology links hospitalized student to Souvenir Elementary

Matthew Parthimos and Jared Laskaris take part in a debate with Alex, who is visible on the videoconferencing unit screen

A Souvenir Elementary School student, whose academic future was compromised when kidney problems kept him from class while he underwent hemodialysis, is getting better grades thanks to some innovative teleconferencing technology.

Dialysis needed
Alex Strathopoulos, 11, whose kidneys had to be removed when he was six, received a kidney transplant three years ago. However, due to complications the transplant failed. As a result, he has to receive hemodialysis treatments at the Montreal Children`s hospital three times a week, lasting from five to six hours each time.
Through the dedicated help of his grade four teacher, Mary Bellon, along with the hospital, Pratt and Whitney Canada’s Telehealth program and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier School Board’s information technology department, a “virtual school” environment was created, permitting Alex to assist in classroom activities through a videoconferencing unit.
According to Bellon, who has been teaching 11-year-old Alex for the last two years, he had missed a lot of school and most of grades one to three. Last year was actually the first time he got to be in a classroom long enough to become accustomed to other pupils. Alex is currently studying as part of special school board program known as an Individual Educational Plan.

Tech to the rescue
In an age like ours when web technology is granting live video access to just about anyone, a hospital turns out to be one of the few places today where Internet connections are restricted. According to Bellon, it was initially suggested that the IP phone application Skype be tried out to link the hospital and the classroom.
But that was overruled by hospital personnel who said it could potentially interfere with medical equipment that operates electronically. So the video technology chosen for the task is made by Tandberg, a multinational company specializing in dedicated, high-quality videoconferencing service.
The Laval News got a demonstration during a visit to Souvenir Elementary School in early June. Participating in a debate on the pros and cons of keeping undomesticated animals cooped up in zoos, six students (including Alex on the monitor atop the teacher’s desk) freely exchanged viewpoints. In the end, Alex’s team prevailed based on accumulated points.

Like being there
The question is then put to the students in the classroom: did it feel like Alex was really there? “Yeah,” comes back an enthusiastic and almost unanimous reply from the 20 or so pupils. The biggest advantage, Bellon adds, is social. “He would always come back from the hospital saying what did you do during the afternoon,” she says. “He didn’t know. Now he knows what we’re doing in class.”
According to Alex’s mother, Bessy, who had been picking Alex up to take him for dialysis three times a week, it’s now “just like he’s at school. He talks to the teacher and to the class, and she also tells him what to do. When she explains things on the blackboard for the class, Alex listens and can see it.” Alex’s mother also finds that his grades have substantially improved.
“Alex is the most polite young person you‘ll ever meet,” says his teacher. “He is the student who will say, ‘After you, Mrs. Bellon.’ Having attended a play recently with 110 students at another school, Alex, says Bellon, was the only one who thanked her afterwards. “He’s just super, super polite. A fantastic young man.”

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