In the fall of 1918, as the second deadly wave of the influenza pandemic known as the “Spanish Flu” swept the country, schools in cities across the United States were closing in an effort to limit contagion.
But in the country’s two largest urban centers, New York and Chicago, public schools remained open – even in October 1918, the flu’s deadliest month, when some 195,000 Americans died. Health officials in both cities bet on newly robust school hygiene and medical inspection programs, which progressive-era reformers had put in place in the decades leading up to the flu.
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Public schools as critical havens of safety
At the end of the 19th century, public school enrollment in the United States exploded, with total enrollment increasing 44% in the 1870s alone. Enrollment continued to increase over the next several decades, largely in due to the increase in the total population of the country. In 1918, more American children were attending public schools than ever before.
Attendance rates also steadily improved after the 1850s, with state after state passing mandatory attendance laws. When Mississippi enacted a mandatory attendance law in 1918, all US states had such laws in place for the first time.
But for social and educational reformers, it is not enough for children to attend school – they must also stay safe and healthy when they get there. Schools have been renovated and reorganized to allow better ventilation of classrooms and ensure access to fresh drinking water. Beginning in the 1890s, many cities began health inspection programs, with doctors going to schools to check on student health and identify ailments, from head lice to tuberculosis.
In 1902, Lina Rogers became the nation’s first school nurse, when she was hired to improve student health and attendance at four New York City schools. Absenteeism fell by 90% within six months of taking office, and by 1914, the city’s schools employed nearly 400 nurses.
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Doctors: children – and infections – better contained in schools
As the second wave of the Spanish flu hit in September 1918, Dr Royal S. Copeland, homeopathic physician and city health commissioner, initially envisioned school closures as a way to limit the spread of the pandemic. But Dr S. Josephine Baker, director of the Department of Health’s Office of Child Hygiene and a leading progressive reformer, persuaded Copeland to keep the city’s schools open, according to a 2010 article co-authored by Dr Alexandra Stern. Baker argued that children were better confined to schools and that regular medical inspections could identify sick students and keep healthy students safe.
At the time, New York City’s public school system numbered nearly one million children, 750,000 of whom lived in overcrowded and often unsanitary housing. In an article entitled “Epidemic Lessons Against Next Time”, published in the New York Times in November 1918, after the worst of the pandemic had passed, Copeland described the benefits of keeping schools open: “[Children] leave their often unsanitary homes for large, clean and ventilated school buildings, where there is always an enforced inspection and examination system, ”he said.
Students with symptoms were immediately isolated, Copeland explained. If they had a fever, they were sent home, after which a health official was sent to their home to determine if they could recover there or if they needed to be sent to the hospital.
Copeland himself was upset when his son’s private school, the School of Ethical Culture, closed in mid-October. According to another report by Time, the commissioner accused his son’s flu case of not being at school, arguing that “children are better off at school, under surveillance, than playing in the street”.
READ MORE: Why the second wave of the Spanish flu was so deadly
Chicago (and New Haven) keep schools open too
Like Copeland, Chicago’s Health Commissioner John Dill Robertson made the controversial decision to keep schools open during the worst of the 1918-19 flu pandemic. The city already had a strong medical inspection program in schools by this time, and Robertson and other health officials believed children would be better off in school than at home or on the streets, with relatively limited supervision.
Despite this belief, many parents in Chicago still chose to keep their children at home: Stern and his co-authors reported that absenteeism rates fell from 30% in early to mid-October 1918 to nearly 50% at the end of the month. Robertson then suggested that parents keep the children at home because of what he called “fluphobia”.
In addition to New York and Chicago, officials in New Haven, Connecticut, have also kept schools open during the pandemic and have seen equally high absenteeism rates – among teachers and students alike. In all three cities, the role of medical inspectorates and school nurses has been crucial in keeping schools open, and has proven to many the value of reforms instituted in previous decades.
Compared to other large cities in the Northeast, like Boston and Philadelphia, New York has weathered the influenza pandemic fairly well, and many credited Copeland with limiting the damage and keeping people (relatively) calm.
In 1922, Copeland successfully ran for the US Senate; a young Franklin D. Roosevelt was honorary chairman of his campaign. Copeland would serve three terms as a senator until his death in 1938, and gained lasting fame for his successful efforts to install air conditioning in the Senate Chamber.
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