Lessons to learn from the 1918 flu pandemic

Written by:
Lessons school children 1918 flu -- The Hot Mess Press

A flu pandemic broke out in 1918, it was also known as the Spanish flu. Mary Battenfeld, a Clinical Professor of American and New England Studies, Boston University, researched how schools in the United States responded to the deadly influenza pandemic. She says there are lessons to learn from that pandemic with worldwide deaths estimated at 50 million between 1918 and 1920. Approximately 675,000 of those deaths were people in the U.S. Interestingly, a significant percentage of the 1918 deaths involved people between 15 and 34 years. They were all in good health when the virus struck. As with the current pandemic, most U.S. schools were closed for four months or longer.

Investing in school nurses number one of three lessons

The introduction of school nurses occurred in 1902. At the time, the idea was to have trained nurses available at schools to care for sick children before sending them home. Before the schools had medical personnel, schools would merely send sick children home. They would be absent from school without receiving any treatment. Now, the nurses could diagnose the health problem and provide the parents with essential health information and instruction of how to treat their sick children.

A subsequent study revealed that the services of school nurses helped reduce absentees. This information convinced many other cities to invest in school nurses. So much so, that about 500 cities across the U.S. had medical professionals within the following 11 years.

Lessons School nurses 1900s
Volunteer nurses
photo by rawpixel

A nurse’s report brings more lessons

In 1919, a school nurse submitted a work report to a Wisconsin school board. Handicapped by the flu pandemic outbreak the previous year, she continued to conduct medical examinations at schools and followed up on them. Furthermore, she still managed to visit the homes of students on 1,216 occasions. Additional services included transporting children to doctors’ consultations and providing health care talks to communities.

“Epidemic Lessons Against Next Time”

To show how effective the roles of school nurses were, the New York City Health Commissioner Royal Copeland issued a report of lessons to be learned from the situations during the influenza epidemic. In the 1918 “Epidemic Lessons Against Next Time” report, he underscored the need to be prepared for the next outbreak of such a deadly disease. The report indicated that the qualified nurses’ ongoing service was a unique opportunity to teach parents and children the importance of healthy living and the demands of it.

The lessons of an African proverb

“It takes a village to raise a child” is an apt proverb to describe Mary Battenfeld’s second lesson. After studying the reduced absentees in schools in 43 U.S. cities during 1918, authorities identified the key to successful responses. Planning and collaboration with political leaders, education officials and public health was the answer.

In like manner, health and school officials in Rochester, New York, Wisconsin and Milwaukee worked with representatives and organizations that represented immigrant communities.

Similarly, Los Angeles authorities like the health commissioner, the mayor, school superintendent and the police chief combined forces to provide teachers with additional training. They collaborated to monitor infection rates and deliver homework to about 90,000 students.

During the time of closed schools in St. Louis, police cars served as ambulances and health agencies used teachers’ services. Schools in the city reopened in mid-November. However, another surge in influenza diagnoses saw schools once again shut by the start of December. The group of collaborators then planned a gradual reopening, starting with high schools. Elementary schools only reopened after the numbers of infected children had dropped. The city’s effective collaboration of authorities was said to have been the reason for only 358 deaths among 100,000 people in St. Louis.

Prioritizing the health and life of children is lesson number 3

Two years before the 1918 influenza outbreak, the U.S. Bureau of Education proclaimed that health and life were more important than education. Along with school nurses, lunch programs for schools and playgrounds followed. Additionally, they promoted the idea of outdoor education.

Most importantly, reform occurred against societal barriers. Child labor laws helped break down those barriers to protect the health and welfare of all children. School attendance became compulsory, and they improved the living conditions of millions of children in tenement housing.

1918 Children’s Year

Before the pandemic broke out, President Woodrow Wilson declared 1918 to be “Children’s Year.” With all the steps to prioritize students’ health and welfare, schools were ready to add health care and food to their deliveries of lessons and homework. In the meantime, many changes took place. After schools reopened upon their return, students found large, airy and clean buildings, complete with outdoor spaces and playgrounds.

A century later…

Will we heed the lessons learned a century ago? One hundred years after investing in nurses proved essential, only 60% of U.S. schools have full-time medical personnel. Furthermore, one-quarter of all schools have no nurses on the payroll at all. The results of a recent analysis indicate that hiring more school nurses and reopening schools safely would cost each school district at least an additional $400,000.


Share THis