A report from PBS News Hour examines the circumstances that led some schools to stay open during the 1918 flu pandemic.
During the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic, when an estimated 675,000 people died in the United States alone, the majority of public schools were closed for weeks to months on end. But three major cities — New York City, Chicago, and New Haven — kept their schools open amid valid questions and concerns about safety.
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.