So, you’re a kid stuck at home and bored silly when you could be with classmates enjoying world history class. Or, you’re a teacher whose plans for the whole year have been upended. Or you’re a parent scrambling to provide care and activities for a child who would, under normal circumstances, be in school. (Or, you’re a teacher and a parent trying to do BOTH.) All because of a virus that might seem pretty scary but can also feel unreal, and hard to imagine. Is it really necessary to close the schools?
It’s not the first time the US has faced this question. In 1918 and 1919, the influenza pandemic swept the world in two waves. Two studies shed light on the response of schools and other institutions, and whether or not it made a difference.
The first study, by Alexandra M. Stern, Martin S. Cetron, and Howard Markel, explores how decisions to close schools were made during the 1918-1919 school year. Interestingly, many cities reached quite different decisions about keeping schools open or closing them in September 1918, as the second wave of influenza hit the country (after a somewhat better summer). Chicago, New Haven, and New York City, for example, decided to keep schools open. Large numbers of students nevertheless stayed home—absenteeism rates in Chicago in late October 1918 hit 50 percent. Many other cities worked closely to close schools quickly, while a few cities like Portland, Oregon and Grand Rapids, Michigan were eventually forced to close by the state government, even though their city governments disagreed.
Two city-wide decisions stand out as unusual. In Cleveland, a decision was made to shut down a school or district only if 20 percent of the students in an individual school, or 20 percent in a district, became absent in a given time period. In Los Angeles, students were sent home, but a mail-in correspondence system was started. In a preview of today’s “online-education”, teachers across the city developed homework modules that students could send into them by mail.
In 2007, a second study by Howard Markel, Harvey B. Lipman, and Alexander Navarro found that school closures in 1918-1919 did help to reduce the incidence of influenza and mortality from both influenza and related diseases. The authors studied 43 cities over 24 weeks of 1918-1919. Their study found that cities that closed schools and banned or limited public gatherings significantly decreased the number of deaths due to influenza. Those that did so early fared better than those that did not.
Are there lessons to be learned from these studies? In many ways, the situation in 1918-1919 is not that different from today. Because of better communication and advances in health care, we are much better off today than we were in 1918-1919. However, schools are less prepared than they were in the past. In 1918, the United States was in the middle of the Progressive Era, a period of social reform and activism aimed at helping the poor and working-class families become healthier and wealthier. Progressive Era reforms had, by 1918, put nurses into schools. Also, most experts agree that this was a period when Americans had a strong sense of the need for common action. This made it easier for people to accept difficult actions like school closing.
There are also similarities between the two eras. In both cases, schools faced a patchwork of regulations and laws that make it difficult to know who really has the authority to close schools. Families—especially those without financial resources—faced difficulties managing adult work schedules, childcare, and even providing food for kids who would normally receive school-provided breakfasts and lunches. All of these considerations were part of the calculation cities were making in 1918-1919, and they remain important today, as government officials at the city, district, state, and national levels weigh the positives and negatives of school closures.
Cover image: Children in classroom, 1919, American National Red Cross photograph collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., public domain.
Alexandra M. Stern, Martin S. Cetron, and Howard Markel, “Closing the Schools: Lessons from the 1918-1919 U.S. Influenza Pandemic,” Health Affairs 28, no.1 (2009) https://doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.28.6.w1066.
Howard Markel, Harvey B. Lipman, and Alexander Navarro, et al. “Nonpharmaceutical Interventions Implemented by US Cities During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic,” Journal of the American Medical Association 298, no. 6 (2007): 644-654.