Here’s What Happened When Students Went to School During the 1918 Pandemic

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

This isn’t the first time leaders have struggled with deciding whether or not to keep schools open in a pandemic. Our ancestors faced the same issues. During the influenza pandemic in 1918, even though the world was a very different place, the discussion was just as heated.

The 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans, before it was all over. If you had an ancestor who died in the years 1918 through 1920, there is a very good chance that he or she died of the Spanish Flu.

While the vast majority of cities closed their schools, three opted to keep their schools open — New York, Chicago and New Haven, according to historians.

The results were not good in those school districts.

“For students from the tenement districts, school offered a clean, well-ventilated environment where teachers, nurses, and doctors already practiced — and documented — thorough, routine medical inspections” according to a Public Health Report written in 2020.

New York city was one of the hardest and earliest hit by the flu, said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian and director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan and also co-author of the 2010 Public Health Reports article mentioned above.

You can read more in a current-day article by Theresa Waldrop and published in the CNN website at: https://www.cnn.com/2020/08/19/us/schools-flu-pandemic-1918-trnd/index.html as well as the article written by the same Dr. Howard Markel at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/analysis-why-some-schools-stayed-open-during-the-1918-flu-pandemic.

Graves of 1918 Pandemic Victims

11 Comments

For pretty full coverage regarding the Spanish Flu, there is a book published in 2018 by Kenneth C. Davis titled “More Deadly Than War: The History of the Spanish Flu and the First World War.” It’s an eye opener.

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Dick
I believe it was 50 not 5 million people who succumbed to the Spanish Flu, albeit record keeping was inexact a century ago

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See also The Great Influenza by John Barry.

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Just a small correction – it is estimated that 50 million people died not 5 million – https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm

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Paula Schlichting Cox August 20, 2020 at 12:08 pm

My dad was 18, in NJ commuting to college in NY, mom 13 in school in Indiana. In all their writings I have, no mention of this Flu. Their parents were working- dad’s father in NY & mom’s dad in oil fields. Wonder why no mention. Was it because of location or something else? I’ll never get an answer, which is ok. Just my thoughts.

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I just read the article. The way I read it, they actually praised these three cities for keeping the schools open. There isn’t a negative slant to it. It said New York was so happy with with the management of the city’s health during the flu, they elected him to the US Senate:
“When influenza struck New York City in the fall of 1918, its school system comprised more than a million children, 75 percent of whom lived in crowded and unsanitary tenement houses. Dr. Royal Copeland, the commissioner of the Department of Health at the time, insisted that the clean environment of the modern school buildings, combined with medical inspections and examinations, was far safer than keeping them at home in places like the Lower East Side. Indeed, Copeland became irritated over the closing of his son’s private school, the School for Ethical Culture, in mid-October of 1918 and used his son’s apathy at home as “evidence that children are better off in school, under supervision, than playing about in the streets.” His management of the city’s health during the flu pandemic was so successful that four years later he was elected the U.S. senator from New York, a post he held until his death in 1938.
In Chicago, Health Commissioner John Dill Robertson had a similar philosophy. Fighting off angry parents and teachers, Robertson held fast against school closure. In 1919, he reported that “with respect to the schools, it was remembered that the sanitation is quite uniformly good and that the hygienic conditions of environment were better than those which would have obtained among the children if classes were discontinued.” Even without school closures in Chicago, the classrooms were fairly empty due to high rates of absenteeism of 30 percent in early-to-mid-October, to nearly 50 percent by the end of the month. Robertson concluded that many students were being unnecessarily kept home by parents stricken with “fluphobia.” But then as now, parents had legitimate concerns about sending their children back.
Meanwhile, the New Haven health commissioner, Dr. Frank Wright, enjoyed wide respect among the citizens and other city officials. Like New York and Chicago, New Haven also intensified school-based medical inspection programs to quickly diagnose the children who were infected with the flu and isolated them as soon as possible from their peers and teachers. Working with parents, the school board and the mayor, Wright developed an amicable plan to keep children in schools where physicians and nurses worked full-time to identify sick children and send them home for proper care. This plan also helped keep students from congregating in the streets and reduced their exposure to ill adults.

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Monday the Twentieth. Bob do you know what Pasadena people have to wear over their faces – masks – and if they don’t the police arrest them and the fine runs from five dollars on up according of course to how one acts when they are arrested.

The influenza situation is serious in Pasadena. More cases and deaths every day. Every day there are a hundred new cases and more. The schools and churches have been closed for so long. The schools in fact have only been open three weeks. I’m glad that you and Dorothy aren’t in any high grade where you would lose a whole years work. We seldom go any where on account of the epidemic. Grandma Remmers on Raymond Avenue is about the limit and sometimes daddy’s store out at Lamanda Park.

From my grandmother’s Journal to her son of January 1919.

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More from my grandmother’s 1919 journal to her son:
During February in fact to be more definite the tenth – school re-opened. The flu epidemic has subsided. It left as swiftly as it came for which everyone is thankful. Every precaution was taken at the schools to prevent it and I’m glad they have been able to remain open.

The morning that school started you came in our bedroom with a bound and said, “Get up mother don’t you know what day it is?” Everywhere the children were glad to go back to school for seven months is a long, long vacation.

I’m not satisfied with you going to kindergarten again this year and maybe I’ll see about first grade work for you at some private school. I think probably I’ll go over to Broad Oaks tomorrow and see how long the term is and I may send you there. Well Bobby Bumpkins good night.

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My grandfather lost his father who was 30 at the time, and 2 of his sisters in December of 1918 due to the Spanish Flu. The obituary read grim reaper strikes again.

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It took me 5 years of researching my great uncle Frank C Swearingen and his family, only to find he and his new family had died from the Spanish flu in Youngstown Ohio.His daughter Naomi 11 months old, died first on 30 Oct 1918. Frank died on the 4 Nov 1918 and wife Ellen Johnson Swearingen was hospitalized in critical condition at the same time.Do not know where they are buried. [a sad story]

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    That time period was the height of pandemic deaths. Two of my family members also died during that time. Your relatives are probably buried in a common grave with no marker. For sanitation purposes, pandemic victims had to be buried immediately, without the usual niceties we take for granted. There was no time even to figure out who they were. Tragedy upon tragedy.

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