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What Teachers Can Learn from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Medical men wearing masks at a U.S. Army hospital at Fort Porter, N.Y., on Nov. 19, 1918.

Medical men wearing masks at a U.S. Army hospital at Fort Porter, N.Y., on Nov. 19, 1918, during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Closing schools, Health Affairs notes, is a typical response to any contagious crisis that threatens children. A study published in the JAMA Network examined the nonpharmaceutical responses of 43 cities during the 1918 influenza pandemic—40 of those cities closed schools for about six weeks, which helped reduce the overall and peak attack rates and the number of deaths. The school closings also eased the burden on healthcare services and infrastructure.

Schooling today is much different than it was in the early 20th century. But though the times and culture have changed, we can still learn a few things from what happened in 1918.

Further Reading: Fight the Flu! A Teacher's Guide to Battling Germs (Infographic)

Foster Independent Learning

Without access to their teachers, students during the 1918 pandemic took charge of their learning: They read the few books they had, kept journals, and wrote detailed letters. Today, we need to prepare our students to learn from home by providing them with plenty of opportunities to develop healthy work habits and cognitive capacity and by teaching them to not give up. Students should understand the value of productive struggle, learn how to get unstuck, and challenge themselves to tackle new tasks without fear.

During the coronavirus pandemic, many students are growing and learning in ways more creative than ever. They're studying new languages, playing video games that help them develop strategic skills and improve mental flexibility, learning how to play instruments on their smartphones, and reading educational webcomics. It might not seem as though they're learning in the traditional sense, but many students are taking on new educational adventures. If we teach students how to learn, they will do so through any stay-at-home order.

Provide Multiple Pathways to Learning

There were no computers or online educational resources in 1918, yet students learned anyway, from books and other analog materials. Despite our best efforts, many of our students don't have reliable internet access—putting them in the same situation as students from a century ago. Sitting behind a screen all day is brutal anyway, and being able to curl up with a real book will help students learn while helping them discover the joys of reading for pleasure.

It might not work for every subject—learning calculus without instruction, for example, would be difficult—but putting materials into students' hands offers benefits during challenging times.

Use the 1918 Pandemic for a Civics Lesson

The U.S. was battling World War I when the 1918 flu pandemic hit. Patriotism kept people working together to stop the spread of the virus. Alexander Navarro, who co-authored the JAMA Network study on local government response to the 1918 pandemic, noted to Education Week that it's difficult to apply the lessons of 1918 to today, when the partisan political process and declining trust in government have people questioning the judgment of public health officials.

Creating lessons around the broader takeaways from the 1918 pandemic, though, can help teach students how to scrutinize information, rely on science, and vet advice from medical and public health officials. Equipping students with the tools to keep themselves safe can save their lives.

Evaluate Social Media and Misinformation

Americans in 1918 didn't have the access to information that we do now. They trusted their leaders to provide them with accurate, helpful information and expert advice. Today, our students are inundated with misinformation, much of which propagates through social media.

One of the best ways to combat misinformation is to teach students how to process and analyze data and how to check and evaluate sources. What is the data really saying? What do the numbers mean? Is the source reliable and credible? Teaching students how to analyze information will help them come out of the crisis as better informed citizens.

Ensure That Backup Systems Are in Place

Backup online systems have long been in place in areas where schooling is frequently interrupted—such as New Hampshire, where blizzards can close schools for weeks. According to the Harvard Gazette, these backup systems made the transition to online instruction after school closures relatively seamless in those areas.

Most school systems, however, weren't prepared for the shutdown. Schools need to design and develop new, permanent systems that meet the needs that have been exposed by the current crisis. During this emergency, we've all learned a great deal about delivering online instruction; future professional development should focus on further developing these skills.

Recognize and Address Long-Lasting Effects

In American Pandemic: The Lost World of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, Nancy Bristow notes that although the pandemic disrupted the "most basic patterns of American life," it didn't cause long-term social or cultural change. Instead, it "reinforced the status quo and the differences and disparities that defined American life." For many Americans, the trauma never ended, and the losses profoundly affected survivors for the rest of their lives.

In some areas, school closures will exacerbate the achievement gap. Teachers will need to focus on teaching the content standards critical for ensuring student success at the next grade level, and they'll need to work toward increasing student engagement while focusing on addressing fundamental needs. We must continue to address the educational inequities that exist in our country and help students who need it the most.

Further Reading: 5 REALISTIC Ways for Teachers to Get Healthier This Year

There's still much we can learn from the 1918 influenza pandemic. Going forward, we will need to be both proactive and reactive.