Pandemics & School Closures: A History Lesson

In its June/July 2020 issue, School Nutrition looked at how kids of different ages were coping with the extensive school closures of the COVID-19 pandemic (“SY2019-20: A Most Unusual Year”). Did you know that this is not the first time U.S. schools have closed in response to a pandemic?

More than one hundred years ago, many schools were closed in the U.S. and around the world during the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-19. In particular, urban communities closed public schools for an extended period, according to a 2009 study published in Health Affairs. The study looked at data from 43 cities that closed schools during the second and third waves of the flu outbreak, some for as long as 15 weeks! Despite the fear of contagion, schools in New York and Chicago remained open, given a prevailing philosophy that in these communities, it would be best for children to remain in schools.

Alexandra Stern, PhD, Associate Dean for the Humanities, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with others, researched the effects on the progression of the illness by closing schools during that period. She acknowledges that the experiences of the time offer little insight on how closures affected students. “There was next to no follow-up from the schools that closed about ‘learning outcomes,’” she reports, noting that educators think more in these terms today. In addition, there was obviously no online learning alternative. “What is interesting about 1918, though, is how the correspondence courses that teachers put together, often dropping off packets at students' homes, was the precursor to remote learning.” 

Stern studied the Spanish flu pandemic while researching the effect of closed schools during the much-more recent H1N1 outbreak in Spring 2009. You might be surprised to learn that 726 U.S. schools, affecting 463,282 students, during this viral event just a decade ago. The period of closures varied, with the longest being two weeks.  

A year earlier, a particularly virulent strain of the flu forced schools to close in Kentucky in February 2008. A Kentucky Department of Health survey found that 97% of respondents supported the short closure of schools at that time. One other pandemic, the Hong Kong flu of 1968, did not prompt any school closures.

Back-Arrow-Blue Back to the top

Contact Us

2900 S. Quincy Street, Suite 700
Arlington, VA 22206  

Tel (703) 824-3000
Fax (703) 824-3015

> For The Media
> Work With US

Sign Up for Our Newsletters

Read the latest news and developments facing the school nutrition industry, as well as stay on top of important trends and resources.


> Read the Latest Newsletters

SNA State Associations

The School Nutrition Association has a presence in every state across the country. View links to many of the state associations to find out more about what SNA is doing nationwide. 

> Learn More