When he was younger, Max Castillo’s school experience was restricted to just a couple of classrooms. As he entered sixth grade this year, his medical condition forced him to take all his classes at home.
At age 11, he was sorely missing the company of other students. Several genetic diseases have made him extremely sensitive to gluten and pet dander — even small particles suspended in the air make him sick.
In September, a 40-pound Beam robot appeared on the scene at Central Middle School in Evergreen Park, Ill. Now Max can be part of classroom discussions from his home, and see and hear what teachers and his peers are doing.
“I really feel like I am in school,” said Max, of Evergreen Park. “I wasn’t able to go to lunch before, but now I’m able to actually go to lunch and talk with my friends.”
Max controls the robot from his laptop, directing it from class to class with the help of an aide at the school. A video feed of Max’s face shows up on the robot’s tablet screen, allowing his teachers and peers to interact with him.
That daily, spontaneous interaction hasn’t been part of Max’s school routine since last spring, when he became sick with a migraine, sensitivity to light, dizziness, fainting and eventually dislocation of some joints.
He hasn’t been to school since.
“The risk is especially because they cook all of the meals at that school and that he can be exposed to gluten almost anywhere in the school,” said Alya Castillo, his mother.
Castillo said Max is a gifted student but was constantly worried about the allergens that might make him sick.
“There’s no replacement for being in school with your friends, but he’s not as anxious as he used to be,” she said.
With the robot’s help, Max once again is socially engaged, Castillo said, learning at the same pace as other students and participating in discussions.
“He’s getting that multifaceted approach you wouldn’t get in front of the computer,” she said.
Math teacher Tim Hanenburg said he makes sure the robot is in his classroom so Max is visible to all.
“It’s great that he can be part of class on a daily basis and can be comfortable at home and not be exposed to anything he might be allergic to,” Hanenburg said.
Veda Newman, the district’s director of Student Support Services, researched robots and found the Beam for $5,000, which was less than the cost of regular teacher visits to the Castillo home.
Students have adjusted well to his digital presence, said Camille Dickey, Max’s case manager at the school.
“He’s so excited about being able to be at school,” Dickey said. “He comes down the hall and the kids are like, ‘Hey, Max’ and ‘Hi, Max.’ I’m just really happy for Max. He wants so much to be a part of things and he loves to learn.”