Children juggle schoolwork while fighting cancer

- Geometry, Algebra II, English, Chemistry, and World History is a heavy course load for any high school sophomore, let alone one who's trying to fit school work in between cancer treatments.

"Sometimes it feels stressful that I have to deal with my situation, plus I have to consider school and what my future is ahead," said Olivia Rivera, a 16-year-old lymphoblastic leukemia patient at John's Hopkins All Children's Hospital. "It's a lot of stress."

For Rivera, and thousands of kids like her, beating cancer means spending more time in a hospital room than in the classroom. It doesn't take long to fall behind.

"I'm feeling stressed out in getting bad grades," said Ashley Hedges, 10.

Hedges, who suffers from a severe form of cystic fibrosis, is hospitalized for weeks at a time in order to receive the intensive treatment she needs. She worries that missed assignments might catch up to her and she could end up being held back a grade. "I'm nervous because I don't want to leave my friends."

At All Children's, education coordinator Alicia Riggs helps take the pressure off. Each year she meets with hundreds of kids all with the same dilemma.

"They've got all this going on but this one piece of normal is their schoolwork,” said Riggs. "They want to be that student that they were."

In today's high-stakes learning environment, these patients are forced to balance the stress of their serious diagnoses with the fear of falling behind their healthy peers in school, but Riggs works to keep them on track.

It's not easy.

Riggs work with patients from 29 different counties, each with different requirements.

"It takes probably hours of phone calling, hours of trying to find the right person, of leaving messages and emails to finally get a response back to even begin the conversation of how we can help this child," Riggs explained.

Riggs says students are typically left in limbo for weeks, sometimes longer, before they receive their learning plan and course work. Options are limited. Riggs says it's a one-size-fits-all approach that often fits no one. For many kids, the only option is online learning.

"Every high school student that goes on hospital homebound in every county that I've dealt with thus far is all online only," explained Riggs, who says online is also the only option for kids as young as fifth grade in some counties. "I've had moms so frustrated and they say, 'you know, he can't learn that way.'"

The online platform is a struggle for even the highest achievers like Rivera.

"I don't like that I have to do it all by myself," said Rivera. "Sometimes I understand [the lesson] and then when I go to do the problems they're like way harder than the examples."

Without a teacher in the room guiding her, Rivera must reach out by phone or email to a designated educator provided by her county. It can be hours before she receives a response.

Some online courses also lack the flexibility needed by students whose treatment schedules come first.

"Those programs sometimes ask you to log in at a certain time and do a certain amount of work and then log off, but if that patient is in a procedure at that time or maybe had a procedure the day before and now isn't feeling well or having a reaction to the treatment, then they're going to miss that class," said Riggs. "Then they have to play catch up, and after so many attempts at catch up they start feeling really defeated."

The same is often true for final and state exams. In and out of chemo treatments, Rivera either isn't available for designated exam times or she's left feeling too sick to sit for hours at a time in order to finish her exams.

"I feel like it'd be nicer to just have the ability to say, 'Oh can I just finish this tomorrow? I don't feel well,'" said Rivera.

This year, she was forced to repeat Geometry after she was too sick to take the final last spring. Rivera had hoped she would be able to take the exam over the summer in order to finish the course, but that isn't an option for those taking classes online.

"The [programs] don't work year-round to accommodate students who need a year-round time frame. Accommodating time is one of the easiest things they can do: give them more time, wiggle some turn-in dates, and be more flexible. It's the number one thing that would make schooling easier and allow these students to be more successful," offered Riggs. "And it's not happening at all." 

Despite the added challenges and frustrations she faces, Rivera has her sights set on the future.

"This isn't always going to be what my life is. I want to be prepared for after this is all done and I don't want to be left behind because this happened to me," she insisted.

Help, at least temporarily, is on the way. Riggs has received a one-year state grant that will allow All Children's to hire a pair of teachers -- one full-time, one part-time -- to help students on a daily basis inside the hospital. Riggs is hopeful future funding will allow her to set up a year-round program inside the hospital that will give kids the flexibility they need to simultaneously continue their education and try to get better.

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