Schools have survived crises before, and even come out stronger

By David Nurenberg

As we face the possibility that COVID-19 could force schools to remain remote-operating well into the fall, many are wondering if the shape of schooling is going to permanently change. Will some degree of distance learning remain the new normal? Will some cash-strapped school districts operate entirely online to save on the costs of maintaining physical school infrastructure, including custodial, cafeteria, and transportation workers? Will in-person schooling become a luxury good? Will homeschooling become an expected function of all parents’ and guardians’ lives? Will schools leverage Internet-based relationships across city, state and national borders to become a global learning community?

Spoiler alert: no one knows for sure. But what we do know is how schools have been transformed by, and sometimes even benefited from, large scale crises in the past.

The late nineteen-teens brought not only the upheaval of the First World War, but also the influenza pandemic, combined with smaller but still sizable scale outbreaks of tuberculosis and measles. Disease alone killed more than 650,000 Americans. It was pretty hard for schools to carry on as normal.

Fearing contagion, many schools simply shut down between 1918-1919, but since only the earliest adopters of these closures reduced the student mortality rate compared to districts that remained open, this didn’t last long (in some cities like Chicago, more students contracted flu during the time spent home on winter break than during the school year). Some of the schools that remained open tried innovative approaches like holding classes in buildings without roofs or walls, the idea being to prevent a boxed-in environment in which disease could more easily spread.

Like the present day COVID-19 pandemic, the influenza crisis also drew a lot of attention to how economic and racial disparities equated with health care disparities, leading to the creation of nutrition education and proactive, not just reactive, school health services. The Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps started around this time; its primary purpose was to establish a pipeline of recruits for the war in Europe, but a large part of its curriculum involved wellness and exercise that evolved into today’s physical education programs.

Schools faced their next existential crisis during the Great Depression. By the beginning of 1934 almost 20,000 schools had shut down, and many of those that remained were paying their teachers in I.O.U.s. Teachers left, class sizes grew, students had to bring their own supplies and sometimes even supplemental tuition – it sure looked like the end of the public school as we know it.

As it turned out, educated workers remained in demand. The Civilian Conservation Corps and National Youth Administration were generating employment, but finding that workers didn’t have reading, writing and math skills to do those new jobs. With school systems in tatters, for the first time the federal government began directly funding, and in some cases even administering, public schools. At its height, the Works Progress Administration was operating about 1,500 schools, while the Public Works Administration financed the construction of about 13,000 new school buildings.

This was also the time when the US Department of Agriculture began giving surplus food to schoolchildren, a practice which would eventually grow into the National School Lunch program (so yes, you have President Roosevelt to thank for your tater tots and pizza boats).

When American men went off to fight in World War II and American women replaced them in the workforce, 60% of households lacked a stay-at-home parent. President Roosevelt rejiggered the government’s wartime funding powers to create 3,000 nursery schools and other childcare centers, providing care and early education for 130,000 children. After the war, the GI Bill transformed college from a playground for wealthy elites to an institutionalized part of middle class education.

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans’ Schools, Louisiana’s government undertook a massive takeover (although it quickly handed over operations to nonprofit charters). This was bad news for many teachers, as all union contracts, including tenure protection, were eliminated. But one positive outcome was that, in the new arrangement, students were no longer confined to the school in the neighborhood “zone” where they lived. At last, living in a low income area did not necessarily trap you in an underfunded, underperforming school. Add to this a massive financial investment—as much as $1400 more per student—and test scores, high school graduation rates and college outcomes all improved. Obama-era Secretary of Education Arne Duncan remarked that Hurricane Katrina was the “best thing” that ever happened to education in the city (although he later apologized for this amazingly insensitive wording).

I don’t wish to make Duncan’s mistake, or to minimize the devastating impact any of these crises—COVID-19 included—have had on thousands of people. But history shows us that how crises transform schools has never been simple. Witness teachers during today’s pandemic differentiating their instruction like never before, and finding new ways to engage their students. Look at the current proliferation of museums, universities and celebrities offering free resources and tutorials. Maybe some of this will stick around.

Schools have survived this sort of thing before, and sometimes even improved as a result. I’m hoping that will be the case with post-COVID schooling.


David Nurenberg, PhD is an associate professor at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, MA. He taught high school ELA for 20 years, and now trains teachers and consults for schools in the Boston area. David is also the host of the progressive-education podcast Ed Infinitum. His latest book, What Does Injustice Have to Do with Me?, was published by Rowman and Littlefield this year.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: