Struggle to decide when kids should go back to school mirrors 1918 pandemic debate

Credit: Florida Memory/State Archives of Florida

During the influenza pandemic in 1918, even though the world was a very different place, the discussion [about whether to send kids back to school] was just as heated.

That pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans, before it was all over, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the vast majority of cities closed their schools, three opted to keep them open — New York, Chicago and New Haven, according to historians.

The decisions of health officials in those cities was based largely on the hypothesis of public health officials that students were safer and better off at school.

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[I]n New York, then Health Commissioner Copeland told the New York Times: “How much better it has been to have the children under the constant observation of qualified persons than to close the schools.”

[Medical historian Howard] Markel, who with other researchers pored over data and historical records in looking at the response of 43 cities to the 1918 pandemic, isn’t as convinced.

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New York “didn’t do the worst, but it didn’t do the best, either,” Markel said, adding Chicago was slightly better.

Research showed that cities who implemented quarantining and isolation, school closures and bans on public gatherings fared the best, he said.


“The cities that did more than one” of these measures “did better. School closures were part of that contribution,” Markel said.

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