The Norman Howard School: The Value of In-Person Classes

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Serving children with special learning needs, The Norman Howard School in Rochester has met the challenges of educating during the pandemic.

The school offers a small, structured and supportive learning environment with full access to the general education curriculum.

When most schools suspended in-person education in March 2020, Norman Howard continued school via live, remote instruction via the Chromebooks distributed to each student. Last spring, the school hosted an in-person ceremony to honor graduating seniors.

Beginning in the fall, the school was one of the few in the region to offer in-person schooling five days a week, although some students chose to stay remote because of health concerns in their household.

About 50 of the 100-plus students are on the autism spectrum and are taught using a wide range of social, emotional and learning strategies. The school accepts students in grades 5-12.

Rosemary Hodges, the school’s co-head and longtime director of education, credits the school’s faculty with developing creative ways to keep students engaged both remotely and in-person.

“Our teachers have had to become adept at delivering to students in the classroom and the few at home,” she said. “Those at home need to follow along with the instruction and feel motivated to learn. We have a very creative faculty. They’ve really worked hard to keep it lively and motivating.”

To accommodate in-person learning, the school reconfigured its space. Teachers travel to rooms so that small cohorts of students stay together. This strategy is designed to minimize exposure in case of an outbreak.

“Our students all have learning challenges,” Hodges said. “We feel that in-person helps them stay engaged. Our teachers can give them the support they need. It’s important for our students to socialize with others and have the genuine experience they had pre-pandemic even though they are wearing mask.”

This strategy is not possible at all schools. Norman Howard’s student body size and its building configuration has helped the school rearrange classes to improve the safety of going back to school live.

“When you have larger schools, it’s so much harder to have a place for everyone,” Hodges said. “They have to go to hybrid models. We’re very thankful we can use an in-person model.”

Although those studying remotely can at least keep up with their class, it is less than ideal, especially for children with special needs that affect their understanding of social situations and relationships.

“Remote learning just doesn’t have the richness of the interaction between a teacher and student,” Hodges said. “Also, if the student is online, they don’t have their peers.”

The school’s outdoor space includes an amphitheater, which has been used as a teaching space in good weather.

Despite all the maintained normalcy, students miss elements like most extra-curricular activities such as drama club and yearbook club. With a few restrictions, ski club continued this year.

“We’re looking forward to getting our full array of extra-curriculars back,” Hodges said. “Our seniors would sell pizzas for fundraisers or operate a sub shop and we couldn’t do that. But we’ve been able to have the kids in school which is most important.”