School closures during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic


   As of April 24, 2020, over 124,000 schools have closed, leaving a record breaking 55.1 million students out of in-person education, according to EdWeek. Teachers and students are working hard to come up with ways to keep their education going amidst the pandemic. However, this isn’t the first time schools have closed down.

   In 1918, the most deadly pandemic in US history, the Spanish Flu, spread throughout the country killing an estimated 675,000 people. 40 out of the 43 major cities sampled during a 2007 study closed their doors, according to Alexander Navarro PhD and co-author of a 2007 study on the 1918-1919 flu epidemic. The study shows how difficult it was for students during this time to be away from schools. Navarro writes, “A huge number of students across the nation receive free or reduced-price lunches at school, and so this is a major source of nutrition, as well as daycare essentially.” Students today are still facing this problem, where many of their meals are coming from schools. Over 30 million students are on free or reduced lunches, according to Vox.

   On Oct. 18, 1918, the University of Kansas ordered the school be shut down for a week, all classes were cancelled, and the university didn’t open back up until late December, according to Time. Students were not allowed to leave the campus, and instead were given instructions on what to work on through mail and small gatherings. During this time Myrtle, a student at KU, wrote a letter to her aunt explaining her situation in school. Myrtle said, “I certainly like my school work and time goes so fast.” Myrtle later recounts how normal her new school life has become, and how students and teachers alike are adjusting well.

   Myrna Hodson, a former special education teacher for Kepner Middle School, said, in regards to her grandparents’ experience, as students in 1918, “Rural communities, like where my grandparents lived in northern Minnesota, were not affected.” During the flu epidemic many schools not located in major cities stayed open, despite the threat of the flu. Today, however, schools across the country closed, even in rural areas.

 Schools in Colorado have closed their doors for the remainder of the academic year, and many are scrambling to make plans for the following semester. During these times, it is important to look at the actions of the past to make plans for the future. Navarro said, “Officials need to look at the success and mistakes of the past, to ensure that next time an epidemic comes we can do things right.”

Myrna Hodson’s grandparents’ senior photo, taken in 1919, next to Highlands Ranch High School. Photo by Jack Stilwell