When your child has a serious or chronic illness, it’s hard to think beyond the next treatment. While health is the first priority, education also is important. You’ll want to help your child stay on top of schoolwork as much as possible and plan for their return to school when the doctor says it’s OK.
Staying connected to school brings academic, cognitive, psychological, and social benefits. But it’s also your child’s legal right: Under federal law, kids with chronic or life-threatening illness and/or disabilities are entitled to educational support. Your child might qualify for free services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). If your child attends private or parochial school, you might consider enrolling in your local district, as services are more readily available in public schools than in private schools.
With a little planning and a lot of communication, you can help your child balance treatment with schoolwork.
How Should I Plan for an Absence?
First, talk to your doctor about how long your child is likely to be away from school and whether the treatment might affect concentration, doing homework, and meeting deadlines. Are there side effects that might affect learning or schoolwork? What does your doctor recommend when it comes to attendance, workload, or studying?
Then talk to the teachers and school staff, and encourage your child, if well enough, to do the same. Your child might need a reduced schedule or different due dates for assignments. With some help, your child can work with teachers to plan the workload. The more notice teachers have, the easier it will be to come up with a flexible solution.
Some kids who spend a lot of time away from school or in the hospital have individual education programs (IEPs). An IEP includes customized goals and learning strategies created by the teachers, school psychologists (or other specialists), and counselors.
IEPs consider a child’s individual academic, functional, and behavioral needs. Under the IDEA, kids who qualify for an IEP will receive one at no cost, along with any support services needed to help them with their education.
Some kids are entitled to a 504 plan, which can specify physical accommodations to help them get around school grounds, access classrooms and bathrooms, find an aide, or have special transportation.
To develop an IEP or 504 plan, you can request to meet with support staff from your school and the school district. Contact the Special Services Office, school counselor, or administration in your school district as soon as the doctor says it’s time to plan for your child’s hospital discharge and return to school.
What About Hospital-Based Schooling?
If your child will spend long stretches in the hospital, ask a doctor, nurse, social worker, hospital schoolteacher, or child life specialist about onsite schooling. Many hospitals provide hospital/homebound instruction at no cost to their patients.
The two most common types of educational support include bedside schooling and classroom schooling. Typically, bedside schooling is for children who are too ill to leave their hospital rooms or have weak immune systems. Other kids who are well enough might be educated individually or in small groups in an onsite hospital classroom.
Licensed teachers who are K–12-certified in various subjects and special education work with students to make sure that they don’t fall behind in their studies. To stay on track, hospital schoolteachers or social workers work closely with teachers from a child’s school to:
- maintain curriculum continuity
- develop and maintain IEPs and 504 plans
- arrange for homebound instruction upon discharge
- help a child transition into the classroom when well again
School is scheduled around medical tests and therapies, and always considers a child’s medical condition and strength.
Whether your child is being educated at school, in the hospital, or at home, remember that getting better is the main priority. Kids may feel an unspoken pressure from parents, teachers, and themselves to continue with schoolwork, and this anxiety could hurt their recovery. Help your child keep achievable goals in mind and remind them that they’re supported.
What if My Child Misses Being in School?
Keeping ties with classmates and teachers can help your child keep a sense of normalcy during this difficult time. Your child might be able to join a lesson at school virtually over the computer. Many kids these days are given school-issued technology — such as a laptop or tablet — for this purpose. Check with your social worker, hospital school program, or the hospital IT department to see if any hospital-issued tech is available if the school can’t provide a device.
When an illness means a long absence from school, kids can feel socially cut off from their friends and teachers. Online social networking sites, email, messaging, texting, and talking on the phone can help kids stay connected. Teachers can support letter-writing, email, or a care package campaign from classmates — you might even set up a collection box at school where teachers and classmates can deposit notes and pictures. If the doctor says it’s OK and your child is up to it, encourage them to attend school plays, sports events, classroom parties, and other social gatherings.
Hospital school programs and child life departments can also help when it comes to going back to school. Depending on a child’s needs, they may visit the school ahead of the return date, speak with faculty, attend IEP meetings, or explain to classmates why the child has been absent. They can also explain what to expect when the child returns, and — most important — how to help the child feel welcome.