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Home instruction can keep pupils on educational track

Accidents happen. So do physical, mental and emotional illness — up to and including "school phobia" — surgery, pregnancy and a dozen other things that can keep a child away from school for a time.

That's when home/hospital schooling kicks in. Utah's districts send instructors to these settings when necessary as part of the mandate to provide suitable education to every child. The service keeps a child from falling so far behind due to an unexpected accident or illness that he or she has a hard time catching up with classmates again.

"We need to provide a free and appropriate education to every student. If they are not able to come to us, we have to provide the services where they are," said Martha Kupferschmidt, director of personnel and student services in Murray District.

The provision also allows districts to continue to collect state funds for those children who are unavoidably out of school for a time, said Carol Lear, legal consultant to the State Office of Education. "Two hours a week of home or hospital instruction satisfy a week's attendance in regular school," she said.

Home or hospital visits are initiated by a parent's request backed by the "prescription" of a physician or other caretaker. In some districts, school nurses are involved in assessing and planning for a child with temporary problems.

A teacher assigned to visit a child coordinates with the classroom teacher and then provides homework and instruction aligned to the child's usual program.

Usually, the home or hospital schooling is short-term — two to six weeks — although some illnesses, such as cancer, may require a longer period.

Emotional illness, which has become a bigger burden in the program, also can require long-term home instruction, said Granite's program coordinator, Frosty Perkins. "We may provide service for them until they reach high school age, where we have other options," she said.

Schools have more comprehensive programs for situations that are likely to be more long-term, such as pregnancy, incarceration, behavior problems, chronic truancy and suspension, but in some instances, the circumstances may make home instruction the better option. "We prefer the schools don't use hospital/home schooling funds for kids on suspension," said Lear.

Jordan District policy, for instance, helps to define such distinctions, stating that a pregnant teenage girl will receive home visits only "when extenuating circumstances make it inadvisable or impossible for the girl to participate in the teenage parent program offered through Valley High School."

Home or hospital services also may be terminated if it appears they are worsening the student's condition, such as prolonging "school phobia," a condition in which a child is afraid to go to school. Becoming dependent on or too comfortable with outside-of-school instruction may be detrimental to such a child.

Each case is handled on a case-by-case basis, Kumpferschmidt said.

Teachers must walk a careful line with students who are not feeling up to par. "We don't want to intrude on healing. And we don't want to take germs" to children whose health is already precarious, said Tom Feil, director of student admissions for Davis District. The intensity of the instruction must be matched with the child's ability to cope.

Each district structures its home/hospital program to meet its particular needs, either maintaining a corps of teachers especially for the assignment or calling on willing regular classroom teachers to meet the need. The extra service can be a financial benefit for teachers willing to spend extra time, said Kupferschmidt. The per-hour pay supplements the teacher's regular salary.

In Granite, there is a mix, with a core group of four teachers meeting as much of the demand as possible and others being solicited from the classroom as needed, said Perkins. The hospital/home teachers in Granite see 500 to 600 students each year.

Keeping out-of-school instruction as close as possible to the in-school experience is important, particularly for elementary-age students, Feil said. "Our first preference is to use the child's classroom teacher." If that is not workable, another teacher in the same school is the second best option.

The need for home or hospital teaching tends to increase for students in junior and senior high school, Feil said. In his district in 1998-99, the last year for which he had totals, service was provided to 38 elementary students; 114 junior high school students and 220 high school students out of a total student count of about 58,000.

In some districts, including Jordan, the assignment of providing home or hospital instruction to secondary students is assigned to alternative schools.

Only basic school subjects can be dealt with in the outside-school visits, Feil said, even though some parents object. Keeping up with such things as chorus, art, shop and other non-core subjects is not feasible. "Sometimes, people think we should do everything, but we can't."

"It's not a substitute for the curriculum offered in school," Kupferschmidt agreed. But it is a helpful stepping stone for children who already have problems and don't need the added stress of falling behind in their schoolwork.