History of past college pandemic responses as a guide for this fall

| June 3, 2020 | 0 Comments

PUBLIC SERVICE Announcement for prevention of the 1918 flu.

Most universities have suspended in-person classes and sent students home to minimize potential spread of COVID-19, as the country mobilizes resources to care for growing numbers of infected patients. Officials have branded these efforts as part of their “war” against the virus, with President Donald Trump even calling himself a “war-time president.” The present circumstances are shaping up to be comparable to 1918, when the world faced a pandemic and a world war concurrently, and among others, universities have been looking to history to guide current responses to COVID-19.

1918 responses

The 1918 flu pandemic, known as the Spanish Flu, swept across the globe toward the end of World War 1. With at least 50 million deaths and 500 million infections, which at the time was a third of the world’s population, the pandemic claimed more lives than the war. Traditional university life was upended, especially
with the institution of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) in April 1918, which the U.S. War Department created to train young men for war while they were still taking college courses. There were 157 colleges that established the SATC on campus just in time for the second wave of the virus to hit, in October. The SATC was demobilized in December following the armistice.

Because SATC training was considered vital to the war effort, students stayed on campuses, and that compelled universities to find ways to minimize spread. Universities like Yale and Notre Dame prohibited students from leaving campus and entering the surrounding college town. No member of the Yale community could see an external contact unless the Yale Emergency Council granted a special pass.

Ban on gatherings

SPORTS PAGE from South Bend, Ind., October 1918.

South Bend, Ind., where Notre Dame is located, instituted a ban on public gatherings. Notre Dame’s football team had to cancel three of its nine games, and classes were cancelled for a week.

Similarly, a century later on March 19, 2020, South Bend banned all non-essential travel, and like other collegiate and professional sport seasons, the football season was ended.

Incoming freshman at Notre Dame Nell Hawley said that it is difficult to start the school year in the fall without the school’s customary traditions. Because freshmen have not experienced universities under normal circumstances, many are afraid or disappointed that they are not receiving the college experience that they signed up for.

“Football at Notre Dame is a really big thing, and it’s the heart of the Notre Dame culture,” Hawley said. “Missing out on football, and just the traditions that go along with that, will be really sad, especially as a freshman.”

During the Spanish Flu, the Army had special interest in ensuring that their recruits
followed optimal hygienic and sanitation procedures. Before the SATC was demobilized at the University of Pennsylvania, the SATC took over in setting up emergency hospitals and a sanitation squad. The SATC at Columbia University in New York City had one of
the best records for nationwide SATC camps, cleaning and ventilating the mess hall, taking temperatures, decreasing the number of students per living space and increasing the number of bathrooms.

Universities today will be looking into all of these measures, but circumstances are not entirely the same. For one, the Army is not present to aid with sanitation measures. By age, health risks to the student body are comparably lower than the Spanish Flu, whose victims were largely between the ages of 20 and 40 and were otherwise considered healthy, making college campuses hot spots for
fatalities. Although research is ongoing, COVID-19 seems most serious for the elderly and people with underlying or pre-existing health conditions.

Online alternatives

Colleges now have the ability to look into online alternatives for classes. Most colleges are already instituting some variant of online classes for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year and may continue those classes through the fall semester. However, online
schooling is something else that disadvantages incoming freshmen, who have not had the chance to meet their peers, find friends and connect with clubs and extracurricular opportunities.

“In terms of virtual classes, I feel like that’s something I wouldn’t prefer, just because I want to meet new people,” Hawley said. “It will be hard to establish those friendships and connections early on, especially over Zoom.”

Spanish Flu-era masks

Stanford and Harvard kept their campuses open, back in 1918. Stanford required all community members to wear masks made of cheesecloth and mandated nightly temperature checks. Harvard quarantined any student who sneezed or coughed during class and cancelled large lectures.

PLAGUE MASK worn during the 17th century.

History has seen a variety of collegiate responses to pandemics, including when Cambridge sent home all students, including Isaac Newton, as a preventative measure during the Great Plague of London in 1665. While at home, Newton developed the foundations
for his theories on calculus, optics and gravity.

Universities have been examining a variety of pandemic- conscious measures, some in line with historical efforts and others completely new. Some plans include reducing class sizes; learning in-person with live-streamed lectures; offering only remote learning; insulating community members who are older than 35; shortening block schedules; bringing only freshmen to campus; and postponingthe start of the school year to January.

In many ways these are unprecedented times, but there are methods and lessons to be drawn from the past. Universities will need to determine how they open, quickly, because the new fall term is only a few months away.

Talia Abrahamson is a 2020 graduate of Marlborough School.

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