The Spanish Flu arrived in Canada in 1918 — brought home by soldiers returning from the First World War.
Fifty thousand Canadians died from the virus.
There were widespread closures of businesses, places of worship and theatres but the closure of Ontario schools had a significant impact on students of all ages — from elementary to university.
October 1918, attendance records from the Toronto Board of Education read: “Schools were closed by order of the Medical Officer of Health and remained closed continuously from Friday evening, Oct. 11 to Tuesday morning, Nov. 12.”
Student and teacher absenteeism remained high through the rest of 1918 and well into 1919 because people continued to fall ill or were afraid of getting sick.
When in school, students learned the importance of sneezing or coughing into a handkerchief as well as proper hand washing. There was increased sanitation measures including the daily sweeping of floors.
Toronto’s Forest Schools and open air schools, built to provide a boost for children diagnosed with Tuberculosis in the earlier 1900s, were a popular choice for families in 1918 and 1919. Outdoor classrooms, which typically operated from May through October, helped to curb the spread of influenza and disease.
But Toronto’s High Park Forest School and the Victoria Park Forest school closed in 1963.
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“I think the situation changed and people started to look for more modern solutions. You know this was the modern age, they were looking at ventilation and ventilating the schools properly,” said Greg McKinnon, manager of the Toronto District School Board Museum & Archives department.
Denise Makovac, an OISE graduate student, has researched the 1918 pandemic and its impact on education in Ontario. Makovac said it could have taken anywhere from three to five years for struggling students to get back on track.
“I’m quite amazed that we haven’t had a dialogue in education but even in general around pandemics and the impacts of a pandemic in education,” said Makovac.
Both Makovac and McKinnon point to the trauma experienced by Canadians post-war.
“The 1918 Spanish Flu was lost in World War One … there was an interest to move on. It was such a traumatic time, it was a difficult time…they were desperate to move on and we see that today,” said Makovac.
While online and virtual learning offer unique opportunities that were not available in 1918, experts say, it’s not the best answer to salvaging education during a pandemic.
“One lesson that can be learned is closing schools has huge negative consequences that are not measured by COVID-19 case counts,” said Dr. Neil Rau, medical microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at Humber River Hospital.
“Our school board presently is consulting with so many differently levels,” said McKinnon.
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact all aspects of life, including education, Makovac said that in order for meaningful learning to continue, history can offer some insight and current pandemic realities should be considered to ignite creative thinking.
“As in 1918, student perspectives offered the most poignant examples of the toll of the influenza pandemic in education. Today, I think we should listen carefully to that perspective as this might help us develop the creativity and flexibility that is necessary to education amidst a pandemic,” said Makovac.