Education Reform Blog: How American Public Schools Handled the 1918 Pandemic versus COVID-19

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America

By now, you’ve likely heard the comparisons made between COVID-19 and the influenza pandemic of 1918. There are similarities, as well as stark differences, for sure.  In 1918, humanity was embroiled in a horrific war with unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction, which brought with it the rampant spread of a novel virus through the mobility of its soldiers.  Today, the coronavirus has spread not through soldiers entrenched in battlefield foxholes, but rather through the ease of mobility among individuals in general.

Given my role in helping schools navigate the impact of COVID-19 on their daily operations, I became interested in the ways public schools at the time were affected by the 1918 pandemic.

Just like COVID-19, most schools closed when they were faced with the influenza outbreak over 100 years ago.  And, it goes without saying, the public schools of 1918 could not deliver distance or virtual learning the way we do today.  In addition, though by 1918 most states had enacted compulsory education laws, these laws were not enforced to the same degree they are today and students could more easily miss school without consequence.

The case for reopening after long closures had parallel analyses too.  Screening and health care in schools, though relatively new in the early 1900s, would play a major role in a school’s ability to reopen to students.  School health teams would make daily rounds to assess student and classroom health status.  Now, parents and guardians attest to the same via a smartphone touchscreen application.  Back then, large portions of students enrolled in the public schools of major American cities lived in congested and unhealthy residences.  As a result, the structured, controlled, and monitored public school environment, with its relatively superior cleanliness standards and access to health care, was deemed far safer for the urban child than her or his home.  Plus, school doctors and nurses had near-immediate knowledge of and access to students in need of care.  Such measures served to slow the spread of the virus.

Today, though we perhaps look at the issue similarly, we appear to have slightly different outcomes.  It’s now the densely populated urban areas, with higher rates of COVID-19 diagnoses, that are more likely to experience restricted access to in-person learning than their non-urban counterparts.  This could be attributed to the evolution of cities and towns, the emergence of the suburb, and more widespread access to quality health care over the last 100 years.  Either way, common themes pervaded the strategies for addressing education needs in both the 1918 influenza and 2020 COVID-19 pandemics:

  • School health professionals, especially school nurses, play a critical role in the safe, orderly re-opening of schools
  • School reopening works best when public health, education and government leaders work collaboratively
  • The education of child extends beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. It involves access to health care, school breakfast and lunch, socialization, and a feeling of connectedness

So, did we fail to heed guidance from our past influenza experience?  In some respects we may have.  For instance, when pundits would describe the coronavirus as, “only the flu,” and failed to acknowledge that the flu too ravaged the world in biblical fashion before vaccines and other remedies became available.  On the other hand, like the experience from 100 years ago, for the most part leaders have strived to employ (in varying degrees depending on the jurisdictions) a collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach to addressing our current crisis.  All in all, we pass with a low “D.”