Fifth-grader Evan Otis spends many school days more than 20 miles away from his classmates at Heritage Elementary School in rural southeast Allen County.
Technology, however, lets the 11-year-old remain a regular presence in Matt Bucher's class, even when he's riding in his mother's car or sitting in her workplace, a dental office in southwest Fort Wayne.
A medical condition has qualified Evan to receive homebound instruction until he is paired with a nurse who can accompany him at school, said Christina Otis, his mother.
“I love having him with me,” Otis said, but she added that her social son misses being around his friends.
Homebound students are uncommon. Of the 1.1 million students enrolled in Indiana schools last academic year, 1,702 students received homebound instruction for medical reasons.
That includes 65 of the nearly 30,000 students in Fort Wayne Community Schools, 13 of the 9,800 in East Allen County Schools, 19 of the 7,600 in Northwest Allen County Schools, and 12 of the 7,400 in Southwest Allen County Schools, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
Students may receive homebound instruction when they are expected to miss 20 days of school because of an injury, illness or medical condition. Schools shouldn't wait until students have missed 20 days to begin providing such instruction, the Department of Education says.
Licensed teachers provide homebound instruction in person or through technology at the student's home, hospital or other site. Each situation is different, and districts work with students about what is best for them.
Other circumstances, including disciplinary measures or a disability, may lead to homebound instruction, according the education department.
Evan stays connected with his East Allen County Schools class through an app on his iPad and a classroom camera connected to the same video conferencing software, Zoom.
The setup lets Evan, his teacher and peers see one another. He can also write something on his iPad and have it appear on the classroom's smartboard.
“He can truly participate in class,” Principal Karen Charters said.
The technology is an improvement from a system used several years ago for another homebound student, Charters said. At that time, she said, the class couldn't see the homebound student.
“It's far more satisfying,” Charters said of Evan's arrangement, which began shortly after students returned from winter break.
Bucher also praised the technology, but it was initially disruptive because the students wanted to interact with Evan. They were excited to see Evan because he had been away for a while, the teacher said.
“The kids have a close relationship with each other and with Evan,” Bucher said.
While it's fun to interact with his class through technology, Evan said, it is difficult not being there in person.
Evan was relatively quiet Wednesday afternoon as he listened to Bucher and his classmates through headphones while sitting on an office chair at TLC Dental, where his mother works as an expanded-functions dental assistant. At one point, he asked those nearby for a piece of gum.
“It's gum day at school,” Evan explained.
Otis, who paused to talk during her shift, said she can pinpoint the moment that seemed to put everything into motion regarding Evan's declining health: when he broke a toe by kicking a beach ball last summer.
Swelling then affected many of his joints, including an ankle and knee, Otis said, and it became excruciating for Evan to walk. He also experienced pain in his nose and right ear, she said.
The family sought answers from doctors in Fort Wayne and at Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis but didn't get a diagnosis until a visit to Cincinnati Children's Hospital in December, Otis said.
Evan has relapsing polychondritis, a rare degenerative disease involving deterioration of cartilage. It is believed to be an autoimmune disease, and the exact cause is unknown, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, or NORD.
“Ears, larynx and trachea may become 'floppy,' and the bridge of the nose can collapse into a 'saddlenose' shape,” according to NORD.
In the most severe cases, NORD reports, replacement of heart valves or the insertion of a breathing tube – a tracheotomy – for collapsed airways could be necessary.
The latter was the case for Evan, whose use of a trach tube means he must have a nurse accompany him to school in case anything should happen with the device.
“He has been a trouper,” said Otis, who received training to care for the trach tube along with her husband.
She said Evan, an only child, achieved milestones quicker than expected after the surgery, including speaking. His first sentence?
“'I sound like a robot,'” Otis recalled.
The school's long-term goal is to have Evan return to class, Charters said.
It's the district's responsibility to find a nurse for Evan and to shoulder the cost, but his family may provide their own.
The Otises are working with a home health care agency about the latter option, Evan's mother said. Medicaid should help with the cost, she said, adding that a benefit of hiring their own nurse would mean consistent care for Evan during school breaks.
In the meantime, Evan continues to receive medical treatment and gets some opportunities to visit Heritage. Bucher tutors him after school twice a week, and Otis accompanies her son to class Friday afternoons.
“He's so excited when he comes in,” Charters said, adding that Evan likes arriving before students leave so he can see them.
Thursday, a tutoring day, Evan made it to school in time for the class Valentine's Day party, Bucher said. He said the children were shouting Evan's name when he arrived.
So far, Charters said, Evan is keeping up with his studies.
“He's a really hard worker,” she added.