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After "what can we do?" the question schools will raise is whether your child can do schoolwork. Sometimes parents are surprised by that question, thinking, "My child has just been diagnosed with cancer, why are you asking about schoolwork?!"
The answer to this question is that everyone — you, your family and your health care team — believes your child will become a cancer survivor. Maintaining your expectations about doing schoolwork from the beginning increases the likelihood that your child will be able to return to his or her grade and continue to pass through school without losing a year. By doing homework and by getting extra help or tutoring in the hospital or at home, your child will feel prepared to return to the classroom. Taking exams, including finals, state exams or even college entrance exams such as the SATs or ACTs, in the hospital can often be arranged depending on your child's condition. Tests and projects can also be postponed if necessary. The key to helping your child succeed academically is excellent communication between you and your child's school, and maintaining the same high expectations for your child's performance and behavior as you had before cancer came into your life.
Most cancer centers that treat children provide hospital teachers who can help students keep up with schoolwork during hospitalization. In many districts, a child who is in the hospital for five days or more will qualify for in-hospital teaching. Hospital teachers usually provide one hour a day of private instruction; additional group instruction may be available if medically approved. If the hospital does not have a full-time teacher, the hospital social worker, child life specialist, or nurse coordinator can help you contact your school district to arrange for a teacher to work with your child. Smaller districts that do not have designated hospital teachers often recruit teachers from schools near the hospital.
When a child will be in the hospital for an extended stay, parents are encouraged to make sure their child has been referred for hospital teaching and to consider meeting with the hospital teacher to review the teaching plan. Once your child is enrolled in the hospital school program, the hospital teacher will contact your child's regular school and set up a plan to get homework assignments and to turn in completed work. The hospital teacher will arrange regular teaching times that accommodate your child's medical needs, ability to concentrate and the hospital schedule.
Hospital teachers may not be able to cover every subject, especially for middle- and high-school students who are taking advanced courses. However, school credits may still be earned for in-hospital instruction and your child can remain connected to the regular school program. When your child is ready to be discharged, hospital teachers can help arrange for a Home Teacher or your child's return to regular school.
For advanced students there are a number of options. First, the school may be able to supply a tutor with knowledge in the advanced subjects. In some school districts such skilled teachers are not available for tutoring. In this case, the family can sometimes work with the school to hire tutors from local universities, community colleges or from other high schools. If the school district is not able to accommodate your child's education needs, the district should reimburse the family for the tutoring. Lastly, in some cases where the student would benefit from a reduced class load, he or she can drop a class (for instance chemistry or AP British Literature) and then make up the additional class at a community college during the summer.
When your child is discharged from the hospital but unable to return to school because of health concerns, the school district must provide a teacher who comes to your home regularly to instruct your child. Typically, a student must be out of school for 3 to 4 weeks to qualify for a home teacher.
Once your child is enrolled in home teaching, the home teacher will contact your child's regular school teachers to make sure that your child is getting the homework assignments needed to prepare for returning to school when medically appropriate. As the parent, you should meet with the home teacher to review the plan for home teaching and to provide clear information about your child's illness and treatment so lessons can be planned accordingly. It may be helpful to have the home teacher communicate directly with your child's oncology nurse or social worker so they can answer any specific questions and also serve as an ongoing resource when needed.
Home instruction usually occurs two or three times per week for an hour or more each visit and is scheduled around medical appointments or treatments. The teacher will provide instruction, review homework and make assignments or other work such as projects. A home teacher may continue to work with a student during ongoing hospitalizations, especially if the hospital is nearby. If the child has special learning needs, the home teacher can assist in accessing appropriate school services (see Learning Problems During and After Treatment) for any child requiring special education accommodations.
While home teaching provides less actual teaching time than school, most students will be able to earn the credits needed to stay current with regular classes and grade placement. When a child is scheduled to return to regular school, the home teacher can also facilitate re-entry.