By Bill Cole

Note: A condensed version of this story appeared in the Star-Ledger/nj.com on Nov. 8. You may view it here.

I had a little bird,
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window,
And in-flu-enza.

This was a popular playground rhyme recited by children during the influenza pandemic of 1918, which wreaked havoc throughout the world. It ultimately claimed 675,000 American lives.

As schools continue to navigate the choppy waters roiled by COVID-19 even as we look forward to finally receiving a vaccine, it is important to remember that this isn’t an unprecedented crisis. History can be a helpful teacher, and an overview of how New Jersey dealt with its schools during those fraught months in 1918 and 1919 can be both enlightening and instructive. Despite the difference of 100 years, conflicting opinions stemming from a combination of science, politics and ethics over the question of school closures echo with a familiar resonance.

The 1918 flu was spread widely and internationally by soldiers during World War I. The virus almost certainly did not originate in Spain, but it had a particularly high-profile lethality there, which gave it a dubious name: the Spanish flu.

There were no tests or vaccines to help combat the virus at that time. Preventative measures such as practicing good hygiene, quarantining the infected and shutting down public spaces were the most common responses to its wrath. There were multiple waves of the disease between the spring of 1918 and the winter of 1919. The most virulent of those waves in the United States occurred during the fall of 1918.

The flu takes hold in New Jersey

Toward the end of September 1918, the massive risks posed by the pandemic were becoming apparent in New Jersey. Schools had already long been recognized as an efficient means by which to rapidly disseminate information. In Newark, 70,000 fliers reporting the imminent dangers of the virus were distributed to students to take home and share with their families. Newark teachers were given a speech to read to their classes about the mounting threat. The Sept. 27, 1918 edition of the Newark Evening News ran an excerpt of the prepared speech:

“A few weeks ago, some cases of Spanish Influenza were reported to have been found on ships arriving in the port of New York. Since then many thousands of cases have been reported from Boston, and a number of deaths. Some of our army camps are already infected with this disease, and there is reason to suppose that our own city will not escape. We may, however, do much to prevent this influenza from spreading in our families and a little knowledge may help us to control the disease should it appear in our own families or in the families of neighbors.” (Source: Influenza Encyclopedia, “Talks Explaining Influenza Prepared for Schools.”)

By the first week of October, with the threat swiftly becoming a reality, the New Jersey Board of Health ordered a mandatory statewide closing of most public establishments. Despite the evident warning signs, there were still those in the community who continued to minimize the gravity of the pandemic, not unlike those who believe COVID-19 is overblown.  An Oct. 4, 1918 editorial in the Madison Eagle, a newspaper published in the borough of Madison, claimed the number of cases were being exaggerated,     

“Humankind are somewhat like sheep in that they flock in the same general direction and are unceremoniously scared by the same bugaboos. Fashions change in ailments as in clothes and books. Just now the Spanish influenza is the popular fad. It’s easy to get and very awful when one gets it, but a good many people who think they have it and so report are deluding themselves and causing epidemic lists to swell unnecessarily.” (Source: MorristownGreen.com,  Quarantine, medical care, community: How Morris County overcame the 1918 influenza pandemic.” )

Like today, school closures uneven

A notable exception to the statewide public shutdown mandate in early October were the schools. Though schools were being vastly shuttered across the country, New Jersey handled it its own way. Much like Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision this past August to provide flexibility for local communities to determine whether they were prepared to start in-person instruction or continue with remote learning in the fall, in October of 1918 Wallace Evans Edge, New Jersey’s governor at the time, in conjunction with then State Health Director Jacob C. Price, granted local municipalities authority on whether to close their respective schools. As was reported in the Tuckerton Beacon on Oct. 17, 1918. 

“Owing to the epidemic which seems to have nearly every state in its grasp, the [New Jersey] State Board of Health on Monday of last week ordered all local boards to shut down the places where people congregate, such as churches, theaters, motion picture theaters, barrooms, soda fountains, lodge rooms, dance halls and pool rooms. This order was mandatory as to the above, but local boards were given discretion as to closing schools.” (Source: Begin With a Question, “How Did NJ Reopen Schools in 1918?” )

Many public officials and community members still felt that children, especially those in urban settings, were better off being in school rather than playing in the streets. (See this article.) Others disagreed citing the serious health concerns and debates inevitably persisted.

Although the spirit of local decision-making regarding schools was upheld at the state level, the inexorable surge in illness and death over subsequent weeks was impossible to ignore and school districts across New Jersey were eventually left little choice but to join other public spheres and close their doors.

It is not clear what the students of New Jersey did over the ensuing weeks and months. Their learning was undoubtedly disrupted. Students would have had minimal amounts of homework during that time, according to Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs, curator in the Division of Cultural and Community Life at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Teachers very well may have sent reading assignments home and if students wanted to practice spelling, they would have used alphabet or speller boards, which were popular learning tools at that time—a far cry from today’s tablets, laptop computers and Google Classroom.

New Jersey officially ended its statewide quarantine on Oct. 21, 1918. However, local school districts were still given latitude about whether to open back up or not. As was reported by the New Jersey Courier of Toms River on Oct. 25, 1918.

“The reopening of the schools of New Jersey will not depend upon the lifting of the quarantine by the state board of health, but upon the conditions existing in the various municipalities. This statement was made on Thursday by [New Jersey] State Commissioner of Education [Calvin] Kendall. The erroneous impression had been gained that November 4 had been fixed for reopening of the schools. It is entirely a matter for the municipalities to decide, the commissioner said.” (See this post.)

Flu resurgence foils reopening plans

New Jersey wouldn’t be out of the woods yet. By the early weeks of November, for example, new infections seemed to have decreased to the point that the municipalities of Hanover and Dover considered lifting their closures of public schools. This plan was soon thwarted after 90 new cases emerged, 60 of which were schoolchildren.  This prompted Dover’s Board of Health to again close all public facilities on Nov. 23.

This pattern emerged throughout New Jersey, and there was another extended quarantine in many parts of the state that lasted into December. The final wave of the virus appeared in January 1919 and dissipated once and for all that spring.  Estimates of total deaths in the state caused by the flu pandemic have ranged from 10,000 to 20,000.

COVID-19 and the influenza of 1918

As of Jan. 12, 2021, there were 17,980 confirmed deaths in New Jersey caused by COVID-19 and an additional 2,059 in which COVID-19 was deemed the probable cause—a total of 20,039 residents. 

Today, New Jersey has a population of 9 million, compared to 3 million during the 1918 influenza pandemic. While the 1918 flu pandemic was a proportionally more devastating disease, the sporadic opening and closing of the schools imposed by that virus’s unpredictable course seems disconcertingly relatable to the state’s current plight. Like many other parts of the country, we have seen dizzying vacillations between opening back up to in-person instruction and closing back down after confirmation of positive cases within a given school community.

As we eagerly await the distribution of the vaccine, the debates about how to handle the education of our students in light of COVID-19 will likely continue to rage between state officials, school boards, parents, and school staff. Nonetheless, one thing will remain certain: the imperative to learn from our history, lest we repeat it.

Bill Cole is a school psychologist at Normandy Park Elementary School in the Morris School District. He is the public relations specialist for the Morris County Council of Education Associations. He can be reached at metacole14@gmail.com.

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