St Mary's Academy classroom in 1937

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Colorado Is My Classroom

What Earlier Pandemics Can Teach Us About School

More than a century ago, open-air classrooms had a moment in response to another pandemic. Then it was tuberculosis, another era-defining airborne pathogen that attacked the respiratory system. And the results were encouraging. Could fresh air be part of the solution to school in the time of coronavirus?

No more pencils, no more books,

No more teacher’s dirty looks!

School’s out for summer!

          - Traditional children's rhyme or Alice Cooper,
            depending on when you were in school

The usual children’s song celebrating the end of another school year sounded different this year, tinged with the hollow, echoey sound of a Zoom call on tiny laptop speakers. By the time school let out, students around the country had been learning remotely since spring break, and we knew that this was going to be a summer unlike any other in memory.

Many of the usual thrills of summer vacation have been tempered this year by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Although my rising third- and fourth-graders seem to have found plenty of ways to enjoy their days nonetheless.) And now, as the end of summer approaches, questions about returning to school have grown more pointed than a freshly sharpened pencil, as school districts and families weigh the merits and necessities of opening schools to in-person learning, conducting classes virtually, or exploring new arrangements like homeschooling or privately tutored “pods.”

A growing consensus suggests that this novel coronavirus is not transmitted as readily when we’re outside, particularly if we keep our distance and wear masks. Which raises the question: Could school be held outside?

More than a century ago, open-air classrooms had a moment in response to another pandemic. Then it was tuberculosis, another era-defining airborne pathogen that attacked the respiratory system. And the results were encouraging. But this breath of pedagogical fresh air was largely abandoned during the second half of the twentieth century. Could bringing them back be part of the solution to school in the time of coronavirus?

The Origins of Open-Air Schools in the United States

The idea for outdoor classes in the United States originated in 1907 with two doctors in Providence, Rhode Island, as a strategy for teaching children with tuberculosis. Classes were convened in an unused school building remodeled to have floor-to-ceiling windows that allowed air and light to wash over the classroom. The windows remained open straight through the cold winter months (and it was an unusually cold winter in Providence) with students wrapped in “Eskimo bags” and warmed by heated soapstones at their feet.

By the time summer arrived, the concept had proved successful by every measure—children recovered their health, did well academically, and generally thrived—and the model was soon adopted in cities throughout the country.

Within a decade, more than ninety-three American cities had open-air public schools for sick children, and nearly another sixty had adopted the model for unafflicted students (more than half of these were in California, where the weather made the concept especially popular and viable). Often situated on the edges of the city, in parks, or in remodelled buildings like the Providence school, campuses were established in major urban areas such as New York City and Chicago as well as smaller communities like Hazelton, Pennsylvania, and Eveleth, Minnesota.

As one might expect in a place known as a haven for “lungers” (as those suffering from tuberculosis were often called), Colorado cities were among those giving students a breath of fresh air. In 1911, officials in Denver Public Schools created two open-air classrooms at existing city schools to serve afflicted children, patterning them after the examples in New York, Chicago, and Providence. By 1916, another open-air school had opened in Boulder.

Keeping Schools Open During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

When the (misnamed) Spanish flu struck American cities in the fall of 1918, many public health officials suggested that the disease was less likely to be transmitted outside. (Tragically, they rarely paired that observation with suggestions to remain well-spaced or wear masks even when outdoors, which in many cities led to a second wave of the pandemic propelled by crowded parades celebrating the end of World War I.) However, despite the existing models provided by open-air schools, instead of heading outside districts throughout Colorado and in most urban centers around the nation closed in the fall of 1918 and spring of 1919 during the most intense waves of the influenza pandemic.

Photo of Physics students at the University of Montana's Missoula campus, sitting outdoors on wooden bleachers and bundled up in heavy coats and hats to brave the cold while their professor teaches from a wooden-framed chalkboard in front of the class.

Physics students at the University of Montana's Missoula campus bundled up to brave the cold while classes were held outdoors during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic

Photo courtesy of National Archives

While most cities closed their schoolhouse doors in the face of the flu, a few notable exceptions persisted. Schools in New York City, Chicago, and New Haven bucked the nationwide trend, remaining open as officials argued that students were "better off in school." While some classes in these cities were held outside, they were part of the already-established open-air schools, and the vast majority of classes continued as normal indoors.

The strategy in each city hinged on the assumption of Progressive-era reformers that, as a result of significant investments in public health infrastructure in the decade leading up to the pandemic, even indoor schools were more sanitary spaces—and therefore safer—than home for many students. In New York City, for instance, 75 percent of the district’s nearly one million children lived in tenements whose crowded and unsanitary conditions were notorious for spreading infectious diseases. Schools were kept exceedingly clean, school officials and medical personnel regularly monitored students' health, and public health officials deployed additional resources where circumstances warranted. 

In all three cities, these measures proved largely successful. None saw uncontrollable influenza outbreaks in schools. Nonetheless, many parents kept their children home, and absentee rates were high—between a third and half of students in Chicago and New Haven stayed home during the pandemic.

Colorado Schools During the 1918 Flu Pandemic

School officials in Colorado did not scale up existing models for open-air schools to keep children healthy and in school during the 1918 pandemic. Schools around the state—in locations as varied as Ouray, Rifle, Cañon City, Montrose, Greeley, and Denver—closed for extended periods during the intense first and second waves of the pandemic from October 1918 to March 1919.

During the closures, some communities provided alternative activities for otherwise footloose students. In Denver, the city worked with the Red Cross, the YMCA, and other organizations to provide outdoor activities and "military fun" intended to keep idle students engaged. But these activities were not formal education, and many districts—then, as now—were keenly aware of the potential impact on learning. Around the state, schools reopened each time the flu seemed to abate, hoping to make up for lost instructional time.

In Cañon City, schools were closed through the fall of 1918, but in mid-December the senior class was allowed to come back to the high school to complete their studies for graduation. Local reports specify that the school put "every safeguard" in place, including requiring masks, spacing out desks in classrooms, and eliminating opportunities to congregate between classes. In Denver, The Denver Post reported on the reopening of city schools on January 2, 1919, lamenting that school had been in session for only five weeks (spread over two separate periods) during the fall semester. Both communities announced they would hold classes later into the spring to make up for lost time.

Photo taken in 1918.  Twenty-three high school students sit on the front steps of their school in Canyon City, Colorado for a formal group picture. This is during the Influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, so every student is wearing mask covering their noses and mouths as protection from the flu.

In Cañon City, the senior class put "every safeguard" in place, including wearing masks in class, as they completed their studies for graduation during the 1918 flu pandemic.

Many parents, however, seemed more concerned with their children’s health than instructional time. The superintendent of Montrose schools estimated that absenteeism ran as high as 70 percent when schools reopened in December 1918. The Denver Post also reported that attendance was notably below normal when schools there reopened in January 1919, as parents continued to keep their children home.

At the college level, a few schools did experiment with holding courses outdoors during the early days of the pandemic. Newspaper reports in Gunnison note that the Colorado State Normal School (today’s Western Colorado University) held classes outdoors in early October. But these outdoor classes were not widely reported on, and appear not to have continued once winter arrived and the pandemic deepened. The state's largest universities—the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, and the University of Denver—all closed their campuses. At CU and CSU, soldiers who had been stationed on campus became sick, prompting campus and Army officials to establish hospitals on the otherwise-shuttered campuses.

In the end, the students who missed significant instructional time during the 1918-19 school year and lived under the twin stresses of war and pandemic proved to be, as a group, resilient. In Colorado and around the nation, they grew up to be the leaders of the so-called “Greatest Generation” who led the United States through the Great Depression, powered the Allies to victory in World War II, and inaugurated an era of astounding economic growth and social reform in the middle of the twentieth century.

What Earlier Pandemics Teach Us About School

Despite the existing model of successful open-air education in the first decades of the twentieth century, Colorado classes—indeed, most classes around the nation—did not move outside in significant numbers during the 1918 pandemic. The flu descended on communities ferociously fast, and it’s doubtful whether the state’s school districts could have scaled up the existing open-air school models quickly enough, or secured the resources necessary to keep all students warm through the Colorado winter, to effectively move classes outdoors. In most places throughout Colorado, schools safeguarded their students and communities by closing during the most intense waves of the flu.

The abrupt arrival of COVID-19 last spring recalled the sudden assault of the flu in 1918, again leaving schools little option but to send students home, albeit in most cases with some effort at continuing the lessons virtually. But as the virus's initial blitz has settled into a siege, the approaching school year has given us more time to prepare and consider our options. Some are opting for (or have little choice but) in-person learning with strict safety protocols in place, similar to the successful efforts in New York City, Chicago, and Providence during the 1918 flu outbreak. In many other communities, instead of closing schools outright, teachers are being asked to develop robust remote learning strategies as an alternative to in-person classes.

Yet history shows that options exist beyond this binary. As students, parents, and school officials explore additional alternatives, open-air classrooms offer a compelling possibility. Already, in an echo of the past, public health officials are recommending that schools “increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible” to keep students healthy. The innovative open-air approach to school that proved so successful in combating another airborne disease more than a century ago seems poised to have another moment. Instead of a treatment for sick students, can open-air classrooms be deployed to keep them healthy?

 

Further Reading

Ginia Bellefonte, “Schools Beat Earlier Plagues with Outdoor Classes. We Should Too.” New York Times (July 17, 2020). 

Noel Black and Tyler Hill, “‘Maybe They Should Call it the Kansas Flu’: Colorado and the Spanish Flu Outbreak of 1918,” Colorado Heritage (Spring 2020): 6-15. 

Sherman C. Kingsley and F.B. Dresslar, Open-Air Schools (Washington, DC: US Bureau of Education, 1916).

Mary Korr, “Fighting TB with Fresh-Air Schools,” Rhode Island Medical Journal (Sept. 2016): 75-6. 

Alexandra M. Stern, Mary Beth Reilly, Martin S. Cetron, Howard Markel, “‘Better Off In School’: School Medical Inspection as a Public Health Strategy During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic,” Public Health Reports 125, Suppl 3 (2010): 63-70.

Alexandra M. Stern, Martin S. Cetron, and Howard Markel, “Closing The Schools: Lessons From The 1918–19 U.S. Influenza Pandemic,” Health Affairs (2009): w1066-1078.