1918 schools’ responses to pandemic

QuinnFindley

When the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic came to the United States, Nebraska was not immune from its inevitable effects. After the first few cases were confirmed in Fort Omaha, a previous military supply surplus in North Omaha, the city understood the seriousness of the virus following the deaths of a few citizens. That same day, an emergency quarantine went into effect, and all public schools were ordered to close as a result. 

At the time, the State Health Board was in charge of making the final decision. According to Nebraska Quarterly’s  article related to shutting down campus at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, “The Board of Regents had resisted shuttering the university even as the Spanish flu infected more and more students.” Finally, the deaths of a few students persuaded the school to close down. The university sent all students home until the stats deemed it to be safe to come back a few weeks later. 

However, not every college closed its doors. Ben Justman, Executive Director of the Sarpy County Museum, said, “Bellevue college didn’t fully shut down, however, students had to quarantine their dorms and movement was very restricted.” Similarly to Bellevue College, Creighton University kept the students on campus in 1918. Pictures even prove that the nursing school may have stayed open during the pandemic and the young nurses received their training practice through nursing the flu patients back to health. However, almost all urban high schools closed down completely during the few weeks. 

Though some schools allowed their campuses to stay open as long as students remained quarantined to their dorms, there was not the same technology as there is today. The students during the 1918 pandemic were given vacation time for the few weeks that schools were closed down. Even though the flu had only gotten worse, schools returned to normal. Sadly, a lot of students didn’t make it back to the classroom. Justman said, “The Spanish Flu also affected younger people, so in some schools, teachers and students never returned.” After students returned to school, more nurses were hired and authorities offered health care to public schools. 

The home quarantine only lasted a few weeks, but when students returned to school, rates were higher than ever and more people were getting sick. Similarly to today, the masks started to become a political issue and led to debates about their necessity. The mask ordinance remained in bigger cities, but some rural schools slipped by without enforcing them. Nonetheless, social distancing was still encouraged in most regions of the country.

With the overarching lack of information about the Spanish Flu, many schools were unsure of how to continue education safely.  Now, more than a century later, society is again faced with these same uncertainties and difficulty to continue education.

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