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Hannah Reid, 16, left, and her mother, Syna, practice navigating Hannah’s robot. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

‘Robostudents’: Two CCS students will use telepresence to attend school while they are in Florida

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By Linda Vanderwerf

WILLMAR — When students return from their break on Jan. 6, Community Christian School of Willmar will have all its students back, even the ones who just moved to Florida.

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Sophomore Hannah Reid and fifth-grade brother Brett will be attending CCS via robotic telepresence.

Each of them will be piloting a robot from their new home in Florida so they can continue to attend CCS. They were at the school Friday afternoon practicing their navigation skills. The family will be leaving for Florida in a few days.

The remotely controlled robots will allow the kids to attend and participate in their classes, move from place to place in the school and interact with their friends.

Each robot stands about four feet tall and has a base about a foot in diameter. At the top, the robot holds a camera, a small screen and a control pad.

Parents Chris and Syna Reid said they wanted to keep their kids at CCS. Their older daughter Kaela, 20, graduated from the school, and they want the same for Hannah, 16. They said they aren’t sure yet if Brett will continue with the telepresence for his entire school career.

Similar robots have been used for laughs in television shows recently, but they perform serious work in the real world.

The robots are used in business and health care situations and help students with serious health problems attend school. The maker, VGo Communications of Nashua, N.H., advertises that the robots allow someone to be in two places at the same time.

After practicing with the robots in the school’s computer lab, Brett and Hannah went exploring the school. Hannah drove her robot down a hallway in the high school wing and to the gymnasium.

“I really wanted to stay here in school,” she said, though she is looking forward to the move to Florida. She looked at a computer screen as she maneuvered around the school.

The screen gave her a view of what her robot saw with its camera. In a corner, a smaller image showed her what people could see on the robot’s screen.

She demonstrated how she could click on the screen so lights could alert a teacher when she has a question in class.

Brett, 11, said his friends his friends are “pretty excited” about his coming to class as a robot.

“On the last day of school, Brett came home and said, ‘It’s my last day as a human,’” Chris Reid said.

School administrator John Chapin said he is looking forward to seeing how the robots work when school reopens in January.

One of his questions about the robots was “who’s going to park them at night and plug them in,” he said. “Then they came, and they do that themselves.” Once a robot is near its parking station, the computer will tell it to dock on its own. They have a 12-hour battery life and will be docked each night.

Chris Reid said the family decided to move to Florida because of the favorable tax structure for his business. He can conduct his nationwide steel distribution business, Superior Steel Supply, from anywhere, he said. “We always stayed in this area because of the school,” he said. “We wouldn’t have moved if Hanna couldn’t have graduated here.”

Bennett Office handles tech support for CCS, and the idea for the VGo robots came up while he was researching ways for the Reids to attend class remotely, said Chris Bennett.

Chapin said the family is absorbing the cost of the robots and preparations, so there’s no charge to the school. The online price of the robots is listed at $6,000 each, plus an annual subscription fee.

The Reids said they purchased the robots to be used at the school.

The school, Bennett and the Reids have been working on the idea for about two months. “When Chris wants to get something done, he gets it done,” Syna Reid said with a smile.

To learn more about the robots, go to vgocom.com

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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