How schools deal with pandemics through history

NOW: How schools deal with pandemics through history

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - The coronavirus pandemic has killed over 300,000 people in the U.S alone and infected almost 17 million. But it’s not the first pandemic to ravish our nation... or Michiana.

In 1918, the Spanish flu, now categorized as an h1n1 virus - infected millions of people worldwide.

On November 24, 1918, the Indianapolis Star tallied the state's loss at just over 3 thousand Hoosiers. And like the 2020 pandemic, what followed the one in 1918 was major health restrictions.

"Bigger cities like say new york or Washington DC or Chicago and be more emphasized on the masks and would often arrest people for not wearing masks," Rhiannon Cizon, the Executive Director of the Berrien County Historical Association said.

Social distancing and mask-wearing was the new norm 102 years ago. But what about schools?

Well, most of them closed, and the ones that were allowed to stay open because of the small population size still didn’t.

"When the state of Michigan declared all schools be closed, in October of 1918, Jackson county and Berrien county were the only two that were given the option whether or not they wanted to close. We do know that they closed mostly because parents were keeping their kids at home," Cizon said.

Attendance numbers dropped as you can see in the paper record in our video.

"Parents were taking kids out of the classroom, because a lot of the areas were still using one room schoolhouses. So there was not much in the way of schools that were there were different classrooms, they could spread out there were these little itty bitty small schools and block kids crammed together," she said.

But going virtual, wasn’t an option for families in 1918.

"Because the structure of "school" is a little bit different in 1918, we're starting to see the beginnings of what would have been modern education at that time. It is likely that they may have communicated with their teachers. It's not like they really had textbooks or papers that they write some kids were so right on chalkboards at that time period at the schools, really, really rule," she said. "There was probably a parent at home, usually the mother, who could probably provide some sort of tutoring or overseen of lessons.”

However, if a parent struggled with literacy, it was tougher to teach their kids.

"If you're a parent that didn't know how to read or write, they were not gonna be able to help you," she said. "I mean, kids were being lost in the gap.

School teachers were considered just as important in 1918 as they are today. South Bend Community School Corporation allowed me to dig deep into their archives to find these school board meeting notes from 102 years ago.

One of the problems they were facing was teacher pay. Teachers felt underpaid and overwhelmed during our nation’s first pandemic similar to how many are feeling today.

However, the historian I talked to believes we are in a better place now. Parents have more opportunities to help their kids and technology is better.

Despite the advances, some families will still struggle.

"To have a single parent or a parent to working parents to provide the kind of overseeing of homework and lessons and whatever, because they're, they're trying to keep their job," Cizon said. "There will be people loss, unfortunately, but the idea is that we are working to try and close as many those gaps as we can.”

The pandemic that started in 1918 lasted at least 3 years, but schools came back open much faster.

"That probably would have been in 1919. And they probably would have been based on numbers," she said.

Special thanks to the Berrien County Historical Society and South Bend Community School Corporation for helping us with this story.

Please reach out to Tana Kelley at [email protected] so we can tell your story in the new year.

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