MANITOWOC — When sophomore Nick Welnetz cannot physically attend classes at Roncalli High School, he’s thankful for the next best thing — a robot with an iPad attached to it that allows him to see, hear and respond to what is happening in the classroom.
Nick, the son of Dan and Patty Welnetz, was diagnosed with leukemia in December of 2016. Treatment of the disease requires stays at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Timothy Olson, principal at Roncalli, explored ways to allow Nick to be more involved in his classes. An idea arose from an episode of the television sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”
“They had a similar device. Last summer, we were talking about how best to deal with Nick’s absences, in that he’s a very serious student,” said Olson. “So we did a little research and found a robot online. We had an iPad, so we ordered it. He began using it early in the year.”
“I was kind of skeptical about it because it’s new technology,” said Nick. “The Wi-Fi areas at school aren’t always the best. The connection may cut out. As we used it, the kinks were fixed. It works a lot better now. We learned where not to drive it.”
Nick moves the robot within the classroom and throughout the building. He only needs assistance when the device needs to be placed on the elevator to move it to a different floor.
“We are using a robot called ‘Padbot,’” explained Stevens Alexis, information technology coordinator at Roncalli. “There is an app called PadBot that you need to download on the App Store if you are using an Apple device and on the (Google) Play Store if you are using an Android device. Once the app is installed, you have to create an account and enter the robot name, which is written on the robot. The app features a video chat that allows the user to see and control the robot with a different device.”
Maintenance has been limited, added Alexis. Software updates, when available, and charging the robot, when the battery is low, are all that are necessary.
Nick uses his smartphone to access the robot from the hospital. He has discovered that the technology works the best when he is in the lounge at the medical facility. Interacting in the classroom has provided a much better learning experience.
“It’s hard to understand because no one is teaching you,” he said in reference to his absences prior to using the robot. “It also helps that the hospital has a teacher. It’s different than just looking at the notes, just getting homework from someone and not being taught the lesson. With the robot, you can actually hear the teacher speak and work through it. You can understand it.”
The only drawback is that text written on the white board in the classroom is difficult to see, he added. Nick continues to maintain a 4.0 grade point average.
“They were a little apprehensive about him taking biology because with him missing school and having to miss labs that he would struggle,” said Patty. “They suggested maybe taking biology with chemistry next year. He said, ‘I’m not doing all those labs in one year.’ He got an A-plus (in biology). It was a godsend from last year. The teacher (at the hospital) is great. She talks to all the (Roncalli) teachers.”
Interacting in the classroom also has social benefits, said Nick. He describes his time in the hospital when he couldn’t converse with friends as “really boring.”
The Welnetz family, members of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Manitowoc, recommends the use of the technology by students dealing with illness. Two parents at Children’s Hospital have inquired about the use of a robot.
“There are kids who are there for very long periods of time,” said Dan. “We are fortunate and have not had to stay any longer than three weeks.”
“We’ve had several other students with health issues that required extended absence. It is actually available for any student to use should the situation arise,” said Olson. “We think it works very well. It is as close to being in class and being with classmates as we can get.”
Nick “is on the good side of the curve with this disease,” said Dan. He has only three more months of inpatient hospital stays and a year of outpatient treatment. In addition to excelling academically, Nick has continued to compete in athletics throughout his illness. He is a member of the Roncalli soccer team and also plays tennis for the school squad and a United States Tennis Association (USTA) travel team, which will play at state in July. He was recently awarded the sportsmanship award by the USTA.
“The doctor has said that he has never had a kid who has gone to school like this or has participated in sports,” said Patty. “It’s not heard of.”
Nick, who celebrated his 16th birthday on March 9, is also active in service opportunities through Lasallian Youth at Roncalli and volunteers for the Miracle League, a baseball league for children with physical or intellectual disabilities. He recently attended a retreat in Green Lake with Fr. Mark Mleziva, parochial vicar at St. Francis of Assisi, in preparation for confirmation in the fall. He will attend a leadership seminar at UW-Whitewater in June.
Nick looks forward to the days when inpatient treatment and the use of the robot are behind him. His parents praise the support they have received from the Roncalli community.
“The school has been phenomenal with this illness,” said Patty. “They made a poster for him with (a photo of) all the Roncalli kids and teachers. He has it in his bedroom. We had fundraisers and made ‘Go Nick Go’ T-shirts. The basketball team wore them at state (last year) over their warmups. The tennis team wore them.”
“A lot of people are praying for Nick,” said Dan. “I hear it all the time, ‘We are including your son in our prayer group.’ I say, ‘Keep doing that, it’s definitely helping.’”