The Flu Pandemic of 1918—Are Lessons To Be Learned?

As it turns out, this is not the first time our nation’s leaders have had to make the decision as to whether or not to allow students to return school during an ongoing pandemic.

Even though the world was a much different place than that of today, during the 1918 pandemic that ravaged the nation, the debate was just as active and heated as it is today.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 1918 influenza pandemic, before it was over and ran its course, killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, with 675,000 of its victims reportedly being American citizens.

Even though most of the US chose to close their schools, three cities kept their open—New York, New Haven, and Chicago—according to accounts in the historical records of the era.

The reasoning behind why these three cities decided to keep children in school during the pandemic was based on the thought that they were safer, as well as better off, attending classes. It is essential that we bear in mind that this was also happening during the Progressive Era’s height. There was more emphasis on school hygiene than ever before, and an incredible amount of nurses per student than that of today.

According to an article published in the 2010 Public Health Reports, New York was home to an estimated one million children. A large amount, as many as 75% of these children, lived in tenements that were overcrowded and presented with unsanitary health conditions.

As with the current pandemic, New York was one of the earliest and hardest hit by the nation’s flu. At that time, the children would leave their overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions for those of the large, airy school buildings.

These schools underwent a strictly enforced system of both examination and inspection for cleanliness on a routine basis. Teachers were required to check students for any signs of presenting with the flu, and if symptoms were present, the student was then isolated.

The reasoning for Chicago schools to stay open and having some 500,000 students attend was similar in nature. It was felt that with the schools open, students would be kept off the streets and away from those adults who may be infected themselves.

However, with all this said, absenteeism skyrocketed during the flu pandemic, so it didn’t matter if schools were open or not. One expert blamed the absenteeism on parents having “flu phobia” when it came to their children’s health.

Can we learn from the previous pandemic a better means of managing our current one?