OLD NEWS: There was the problem of school days during the 1918-19 pandemic, too

Editor’s note: “Old News” is an occasional series looking at some of Long Beach’s quirky and interesting historical stories and headlines.

Pandemics are disasters enough before you throw schools into the mix. Then, all hell breaks loose. It’s a perilous vacation for kids, who tend to be happier taking their chances with the outbreak rather than with a day of mind-numbing schoolwork, and it’s a time of terror for the parents who now have to add to their daily jobs and housework a career in teaching at home.

It’s bad today, as the current pandemic has gobbled up much of spring and all of summer and is now gnawing its way through fall with no sign of stopping when winter comes.

But COVID-19, for all the trouble it’s caused and continues to cause, remains far behind the devastation of  the 1918-19 H1N1 pandemic, or Spanish Influenza, which struck fast and hard, killing at least 50 million worldwide and about 675,000 in the U.S. About one-third of the world’s population—around 500 million—contracted the virus.

The rapidity of the Spanish Flu made schoolwork, while not exactly a breeze, at least somewhat handleable. Even though there were stops and starts in terms of opening businesses and gathering places, just as there are with the current pandemic, there was still a rather compacted closure of schools, with an eight-week hiatus in 1918, and a four-week closure early the following year.

There was little for students to do while stuck at home—it was the age before anything that could plausibly kill time had been invented—though some schools provided “correspondence” courses for kids to keep their scholastic chops sharp. But when schools reopened in mid-December 1918, the Board of Education, working with teachers to find a way to get students back up to speed was to cut out the fat—that is, fun—out of the remnants of the school year.

The superintendent of schools, William Stephens, the 1918 equivalent of LBUSD’s current boss Jill Baker, had the unenviable and controversial job of patching together the school schedule so that the year wouldn’t be a washout for students.

Stephens proposed getting rid of the Christmas vacation altogether, save for Christmas and New Year’s days, and to extend the length of a high-school day by 30 minutes for the remainder of the term and, for elementary schools, keep them in class until June 20 instead of June 6, when the term would have normally ended.

Extending the school year deeper into summer was dismissed out of hand, as it was reported in the Long Beach Press, which reported that school during the hot summer months would be “neither wise nor profitable.”

The months of July and August, the Press stated, “are not suitable for school work and if sessions were held during these months, no time for the recuperation of depleted energies would be left for either teachers or pupils before the advent of another school year.”

After much discussion, and plenty of complaints from teachers, it was eventually settled to forego the winter break and to extend the school hours for high-schoolers and the longer year for the younger students.

Perhaps the last person to complain about starting up the schools in the waning days of the pandemic, was E.S. Acres, the business agent of the schools. Schools’ playground equipment had been dismantled and placed inside the buildings to prevent children from gathering on the school grounds. So there was the hassle of putting that all back together. And further, the Press reported Acres as saying, “all the inkwells have to be filled freshly and a number of other details require to be looked after.”

It seems that the only people satisfied by the reopening of schools back then, just as they will be once the COVID closures end, were the parents.

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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