UPDATE: The proposal to streamline educational services for students who are hospitalized or home bound (HB 585) won the unanimous support of the Florida House late Wednesday. Its companion in the Senate (SB 806) is scheduled to be heard Thursday in the Education Appropriations Subcommittee.
Fifteen-year-old Horace Kinsler's eyes brightened when a Pinellas County teacher walked into the hospital's dialysis unit Monday morning.
Finally, after missing three months of classes to focus on his health, he could catch up on his schoolwork.
"It's exciting," the high school sophomore said from the wing of All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine, where he has blood treatments three times each week. "It's boring without anything to do."
Kinsler is among dozens of children currently receiving instructional services at the hospital. They represent all grade levels from kindergarten to college, and are being treated for conditions ranging from organ failure to cancer.
Alicia Riggs, who oversees the program, says the hospital works hard to ensure its longer-term patients don't get too far behind in school. But coordinating those services can be difficult, she said, especially if the child's home school is outside of Pinellas County.
"I work with 28 different counties and they all have different criteria for who can receive the services," she said, adding that it sometimes takes three or four months to get lessons to hospitalized children.
Riggs is hoping state lawmakers will pass a new proposal to streamline education for children who are hospitalized or homebound, and provide additional funding for the program at All Children's. The bill (HB 585/SB 806) was scheduled to receive a floor vote in the House on Wednesday.
Rep. Danny Burgess, the San Antonio Republican sponsoring the proposal in the House, says he has one goal in mind: to prevent children with terminal or chronic illness from "slipping through the cracks."
"The current law doesn't provide minimum requirements for providing instruction to students who are homebound or in the hospital," he said. "This leads to confusion and delay in initiating those services."
All Children's has had an educator on staff since the 1950s, when a schoolteacher gave lessons to kids recovering from medical procedures. More recently, the educator has helped patients and their families develop academic plans, and worked with both the Pinellas school district and the patients' home districts to secure instructional resources.
It isn't easy, said Riggs, who has held the position since 2014.
Even after she meets with a family and fills out the required paperwork, it can take three weeks to get an academic plan going. And that's if the child is already in the Pinellas school system. If the patient lives in another county, the home school district must provide that child's education — or give Pinellas the okay to take the lead.
There's also the issue of which district will pay, especially if the student is eligible to have a teacher dispatched to the hospital.
Kinsler, who was diagnosed with kidney failure late last year, waited nearly three months to get a district-issued laptop and start an online education program. His mother, Latrina Palmer, said she was growing worried that the time away from school would hurt his high GPA at Boca Ciega High in Gulfport.
"He's an A student," she said.
Riggs said long delays discourage young learners.
"The kids get frustrated," she said. "They get tired. They just want to forget it."
The hospital does the best it can to expedite the process, and has volunteers available to help students with their schoolwork, she said. Sometimes, Riggs tutors patients in her office, which has been transformed into a makeshift classroom.
The benefits are more than just academic.
Taking classes has brought some normalcy back to 16-year-old Olivia Rivera's life. The Countryside High student is being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer, and has spent the past year in and out of the hospital.
The academic plan she developed at All Children's would be ambitious even for a student in perfect health. She is taking honors chemistry, English and world history through the Pinellas County online learning program, and algebra and geometry through Florida Virtual School.
"I see all my friends (moving ahead in school) and I want to catch up to them," she said, while plugging away on a virtual chemistry lesson this week. "I want to graduate with them."
After that, she wants to study biomedical engineering at a major research university.
Although Rivera may be especially driven, Riggs said most students throughout the hospital feel similarly.
"They want to be kids," she said. "They want to go to school. They want to take their tests. They want to know they are moving forward with the goals they had before they got sick."
The legislative proposal — which is being sponsored in the Senate by Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity — would authorize the state Board of Education to establish eligibility criteria for hospitalized and homebound instruction, as well as basic requirements for academic services.
It also calls upon state education officials to develop a standard agreement school systems can use to provide "seamless educational instruction" to students who transition between school districts while receiving treatment in a children's hospital.
Supporters include Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego.
"Parents who have children in the hospital are busy with so many things," he said Tuesday. "This shouldn't be one of them."
Burgess, the lawmaker sponsoring the proposal in the House, is hopeful that his colleagues will agree.
"The bottom line is, we are talking about children who are suffering from terminal or chronic illnesses," he said. "We have to make sure we are doing everything we can do help them."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected] or (727) 893-8330. Follow @kmcgrory.