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Changes will add flexibility to academic program for hospital-homebound students

LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County school officials hope to make it easier for students with restrictive medical needs to complete their school work while unable to attend classes.

The district is debuting a new online course system for middle- and high schoolers in its hospital-homebound program, which serves about 400 children a year.

"We're bringing it to the 21st century," supervisor Jennifer Hykes said.

The changes would allow students to take their courses at any time of day or night, unlike the past model that required them to be available at set times. The old way proved problematic for some children taking medications and unable to perform at their best when the course was scheduled, Hykes said.

Students also would avoid complications involved with missing school in the middle of a grading period. The previous system often forced students to repeat work they had already completed in school because they would have to restart the course.

The new system, which the district also uses for credit recovery, will let the students pick up where they left off. When they return to school, they should have an equally seamless transition back into the curriculum.

"We think this will allow kids a lot of flexibility," senior supervisor Jackie Choo said.

Local teachers dedicated to hospital-homebound instruction will be available remotely, making the course much more like virtual school than before. The teachers also will have more opportunities to work with groups of students with similar academic needs, creating online discussion groups and projects.

"We really like (that) there can be more of a social component," Choo said. "If they're really confined to the home, they don't have the chance to interact with their peers."

Hykes acknowledged that some families might not have easy access to computers and the Internet. The district has an arrangement with Bright House Networks to provide low-cost computers and $10-per-month Internet service to families that meet certain income eligibility requirements, she said.

"For those who can't afford it or don't meet the qualifications, we will work with them one-on-one," Hykes said.

Hykes developed the new system over several months, after consulting with special education experts in other Florida school districts. She borrowed primarily from Volusia County, which has run a similar model for about five years and found it successful.

Local parents have received some information about the changes before they take effect. None responded to requests for their reactions.

However, the few who contacted the school district had wide-ranging reactions.

Some told district officials they were excited to have a more streamlined system in place, to keep their children academically challenged while away from campus. Others expressed nervousness, suggesting no changes were needed for a program that helped their medically stressed children.

Choo said the district staff would take steps to ensure that no students are hurt during the transition.

"We are going to with them individually, with their (individualized education program) teams, to make sure this is successful," she said.

The new program will not affect elementary school hospital-homebound students, who will continue to have teachers regularly visit them.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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