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At Height of the 1918 Pandemic, Schools in NYC and Chicago Stayed Open. Here's Why

August 5, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

Amid fierce controversy, public health officials in both cities decided children would be better off in school.

In the fall of 1918, as the deadly , the commissioner blamed his son’s case of influenza on his not being in school, arguing that “children are better off in school, under supervision, than playing about in the streets.”

READ MORE: Why the Second Wave of the Spanish Flu Was So Deadly

Chicago (and New Haven) Keep Schools Open Too

Like Copeland, Chicago’s health commissioner, John Dill Robertson, made the controversial decision to keep schools open during the worst of the 1918-19 flu pandemic. The city already had a strong medical inspection program in schools by that time, and Robertson and other health officials believed that children would be better off in school than at home, or on the streets, with relatively limited supervision

Despite this belief, many parents in Chicago opted to keep their children home anyway: Stern and her co-authors reported that absentee rates went from 30 percent in early to mid-October 1918 to nearly 50 percent late that month. Robertson later suggested parents were keeping children home because of what he called “fluphobia.”

In addition to New York and Chicago, officials in New Haven, Connecticut also kept schools open during the pandemic, and saw similarly high rates of absenteeism—among teachers as well as students. In all three cities, the role of medical inspections and school nurses proved crucial in enabling schools to stay open, and proved to many the value of the reforms instituted in previous decades.

Compared to other major cities in the Northeast, like Boston and Philadelphia, New York weathered the influenza pandemic reasonably well, and many credited Copeland with limiting the damage and keeping people (relatively) calm.

In 1922, Copeland ran successfully for the U.S. Senate; a young Franklin D. Roosevelt served as the honorary chairman of his campaign. Copeland would serve three terms as a senator until his death in 1938, and gained enduring fame for his successful efforts to install air conditioning in the Senate Chamber.

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