I was recently contacted by a journalist who asked me if there was any precedent for the current school closings in response to a health crisis.

My first impulse was to say “no,” based on my knowledge of history, but I started googling before responding.

I googled “school closings” and “1918 flu epidemic” and found this excellent article by Alexandra M. Stern, Marin S. Cetron, and Howard Markel, published in 2009.


The authors wrote in 2009, in relation to an outbreak of the A/H1N1 influenza of that year:

”Nine decades before our current encounter with a novel strain of influenza virus, the deadly second wave of the 1918–19 influenza pandemic struck the United States. In response, most urban communities closed K–12 public schools for an extended period of time, in some locations for as long as fifteen weeks. Typically, the order to close schools came late in the epidemic curves of cities—weeks if not days after deaths from influenza and pneumonia mounted. School closure orders almost always were issued in concert with additional nonpharmaceutical interventions, such as quarantine, isolation, bans on public gatherings, staggered business hours, and orders to use facemasks.

”The U.S. historical record demonstrates that on multiple occasions, when faced with a contagious crisis that affects children, school dismissal and voluntary absenteeism are common responses. Past experiences also reveal that school dismissal tends to be applied by a particular community as a reaction, if not a demand, only after a contagious disease has spread through a community and not as a preemptive public health measure.”

During the deadly 1918 flu pandemic, many schools closed. The two biggest districts—New York City and Chicago—did not but intensified health screenings of students.

Some cities closed their schools for the duration of the health crisis, as long as 15 weeks.

Let us learn from the past to act, not react, and put children’s health first.