As colleges make their plans for the fall, I felt that it would useful to share information on how they handled pandemic conditions in the past. The Pandemic of 1918 stretched into two years, killing over 675,000 Americans. While scientists knew a lot less than they do today, many of the decisions made by college campus communities might seem familiar.
There was no vaccine for this influenza strain, but many survived with effective nursing care and medical treatment for those whose flu transitioned to pneumonia. Isolation became the key, and not just for the sick. People quickly realized, as they had for some earlier epidemics, that avoiding crowds and quarantining the sick showed the best results.
Though Miami never shut down its campus and still held classes, it placed a ban on large gatherings, canceled some sporting events and closed movie theaters and chapels. Despite Miami’s attempts at social distancing, the flu still spread rapidly, and the hospital in Oxford — which was only equipped to treat 12 patients at a time — quickly became overwhelmed.
Bishop Hall, the girls’ dorm, was turned into a makeshift hospital. In addition to the under-equipped hospital, the spread of the virus exposed an extreme shortage of nurses in Oxford and throughout the country. To correct this issue, Miami introduced a three-month pre-nursing course intended to quickly prepare women for nursing school.
Techniques to control the disease were simple. In an order dated Oct. 10, Col. Pearson directed that rooms in Pyne Hall “be thoroughly cleansed with a carbolic acid solution … The bedding to be hung in the open air for 24 hours, the doors closed and the windows opened for 24 hours.” Thanks to their influence, after two local residents had died, the Princeton board of health closed all movie theaters, bowling alleys, and billiard halls, and recommended that the schools be closed as well. Restaurants were required to limit the number of people they served, to avoid creating crowds.
All sick students, even those with a mere hint of a cough or a slightly stuffy nose, were discouraged from attending class. “All classes are about halved by this epidemic,” wrote physics professor Mildred Allen in a letter to her mother. A student from the class of 1920 explained the half-filled classrooms in an October issue of the Mount Holyoke News: “It is almost a habit. Classes seem incidental. If we awake in the morning, feeling unusually sleepy, we decide to stay in bed—at least some people do. We excuse ourselves and the truth is not in us.”
Annual reports issued by Wellesley College’s administration cited the serious impact of the influenza pandemic on its community. The 1918-1919 report documents the situation: “The year had hardly opened when the prevailing influenza became epidemic and made many demands upon the administration of the College. The report detailed “a rigid quarantine, forbidding students to go even to the village, to use trolleys or trains, or to attend any public gathering was in force for many weeks.” Restrictions remained in place until February, at which time no cases of influenza were reported in the infirmary.
I realize that I‘m showing a small sample of colleges. Further, I understand that colleges did not have as many students during the Pandemic of 1918 as they do now. Not even close. Miami of Ohio, for example, did not have 1,000 students that year. These schools, among others, also hosted military training, because our country was at war.
Thankfully, America is not engaged in a world war. Health care and science have advanced as far in 102 years. But I would also expect that college campuses and communities will be pushed to practice social distancing. I would also expect them to put quarantine protocols in place to help students get well.
Ask about both when you interact with college admissions and student affairs officers. You will learn that different schools will have different rules that students will be expected to follow. That might influence your decision about your current college choice or the schools that will be on your list.
Listen to my talk, College Is A Learning AND Living Community, hosted by Dr. Cynthia Colon from Destination YOUniversity on Voice of America Radio!
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