CNN published a very good article about what happened to the schools and their students during the so-called “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1917-18. Many schools closed. Three large urban districts stayed open because officials believed that children were better off in schools than in their crowded tenements.

The striking point in the article is that the schools were well-supplied with nurses and doctors. The progressive reforms of the era had made schools a healthier place than many of the children’s homes. By contrast, about 25% of our schools today have no nurse, and even more have only a part-time nurse.

While the vast majority of cities closed their schools, three opted to keep them open — New York, Chicago and New Haven, according to historians.

The decisions of health officials in those cities was based largely on the hypothesis of public health officials that students were safer and better off at school. It was, after all, the height of the Progressive Era, with its emphasis on hygiene in schools and more nurses for each student than is thinkable now.

New York had almost 1 million school children in 1918 and about 75% of them lived in tenements, in crowded, often unsanitary conditions, according to a 2010 article in Public Health Reports, the official journal of the US Surgeon General and the US Public Health Service.

“For students from the tenement districts, school offered a clean, well-ventilated environment where teachers, nurses, and doctors already practiced — and documented — thorough, routine medical inspections,” according to the Public Health Reports article.

The city was one of the hardest and earliest hit by the flu, said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian and director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. He was a co-author of the 2010 Public Health Reports article.

“(Children) leave their often unsanitary homes for large, clean, airy school buildings, where there is always a system of inspection and examination enforced,” New York’s health commissioner at the time, Dr. Royal S. Copeland, told the New York Times after the pandemic had peaked there.

The “Spanish flu” did not start in Spain. It very likely started in Kansas at Fort Riley. Spain was the first country not to censor news of the pandemic, so it was called the Spanish flu.