School Can – How Telepresence Overcomes School Can’t

I want to share some developments in our work at MissingSchool, particularly in light of the recent Senate Inquiry on The National Trend Of School Refusal And Related Matters in Australia at which I presented as an expert witness.

The phenomenon of ‘School Can’t’ (often called school refusal) is becoming increasingly prevalent. It refers to a situation where a child faces significant barriers to attending school due to a complex interplay of factors. Unlike simple truancy or a lack of interest, these children are grappling with serious medical or mental health challenges that prevent them from participating in a traditional school environment. It’s a pressing issue that demands careful attention and innovative solutions.


“Instead of simply reverting back to school as usual, it’s critical that we keep school telepresence as an option for those, like Owen, who need it the most.”


When we discuss ‘School Can’t,’ it’s important to recognise that not attending school isn’t a matter of choice. Students in this circumstance aren’t deliberately avoiding school; rather, they are contending with a myriad of physical, emotional, and cognitive hurdles that make the school environment a daunting place for them. It’s not about categorising them as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but about acknowledging the unique crisis they face and responding with empathy and tailored strategies.

For many students grappling with ‘School Can’t,’ the overwhelming sensory stimuli, anxiety and stress, or serious illness, make the traditional in-person school setting untenable. Unfortunately, the challenges don’t end there. The prolonged isolation that often accompanies this situation can create a negative feedback loop, exacerbating the physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and mental health consequences for these students – both in the short and long term.

The journey to solutions from ‘School Can’t’ is undoubtedly a complex (and/or lengthy) one, but the emergence of cutting-edge technology is offering new hope. Innovations like telepresence robots are playing a pivotal role in bridging the gap for students like Owen, a Year 9 student who found himself unable to physically attend school due to a surge in anxiety triggered by the pandemic.

Owen’s struggle was compounded by his ASD Level 3 diagnosis, which made leaving his house and attending school a near-impossible feat. Despite extensive support from school, family, and healthcare professionals, the traditional approaches failed to provide a solution. However, MissingSchool’s telepresence robot service was stepped-in as a last resort, allowing Owen to maintain a meaningful presence in the classroom while remaining at home.

Through this technology, Owen actively participated in his education, interacted with teachers and peers, and shared his work, all in real-time. Remarkably, after just seven months of telepresence attendance, Owen’s mother noted a significant positive change in his demeanor – he was enthusiastic and eager to engage with the robot-driven school experience. This was absolutely aided by nurturing and one-on-one engagement between Owen and trusted teachers who understood Owen’s circumstances and could provide the learning experiences he was seeking.



While it’s clear that ‘School Can’t’ cannot be entirely solved by school systems alone, there is reason to be optimistic. Assistive technologies, such as the telepresence robots utilised by MissingSchool, offer a promising avenue to mitigate the consequences of school isolation and promote a sense of inclusion, safety, and learning. Some students find it fascinating, which helps overcome barriers to use.

The significance of safely integrating students experiencing ‘School Can’t’ to their school in a way that supports them cannot be understated. Our data shows that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, upwards of 70,000 students were chronically absent from school due to illness, with current estimates stating more than 100,000 students have a ‘School Can’t’ experience. At the height of the pandemic, MissingSchool data showed that 70% of students we supported did not have an individual learning plan in place.

MissingSchool has supported hundreds of students to connect to their schools – and we are working to see that support extended to students in a ‘School Can’t’ context. This is in line with our education standards for equitable access and participation for every student, irrespective of their health or wellbeing status. The Disability Standards for Education indeed mandate the inclusion of students with disabilities and health needs in mainstream education. The goal is continuity of learning and opportunity on equal terms.

As we reflect on the recent Senate Inquiry*, it’s evident that the potential of telepresence technology goes beyond robots, or temporary measures. Rather, it is a vital component of a 21st-century education, supporting students at risk of not getting a complete education, and preparing students for the evolving landscape of work and life. *(Released on 10 August, the Senate Inquiry report link will be available on this page.)

MissingSchool continues to advocate for a world where all barriers to being at school – physical health, mental health, disability, or otherwise – can be broken down, and every child can find a fulfilling education. If, like us, you want to help make meaningful school connections for kids who can’t be at school…

There are many ways to help:

Every action moves us closer to the finish line: a world where every sick child is seen and heard.

Let’s keep connecting.

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