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Looking back: The 1918 flu pandemic and its impact on education in Ontario

May 13, 2020

By Jenna Mlynaryk and Denise Makovac

In 1918, the Spanish flu arrived in Canada, brought home by soldiers returning from the Great War in Europe. Between 1918 and 1920, the influenza became one of the deadliest pandemics in history, killing 50,000 Canadians and an estimated 20 to 40 million people worldwide, particularly those who were young and healthy.

The 1918 flu pandemic, known as the Spanish flu due to Spain’s extensive reporting on the disease, led to widespread closures of schools and businesses across Canada, while quarantine efforts, the use of face masks, and the implementation of public hygiene rules were put in place.

Across Ontario, students from elementary school to university were affected by the pandemic, while educational institutions played an important role in curbing its spread. This story explores the 1918 pandemic and its impact on education in Ontario and within the University of Toronto community.

A photo of preventative measures for influenza that was published in the National School Services periodical in 1918. It reads: Guard against influenza. Influenza is spread by droplets sprayed from the nose and throat. Cover each cough and sneeze with handkerchief. Avoid crowds. Get plenty of fresh air. Do not spit on the floor or on the sidewalk. Do not use common drinking cups and common towels. Avoid excessive fatigue. If taken ill, go to bed and send for a doctor. Walk to work, if possible. These rules apply also to colds, bronchitis, pneumonia, and tuberculosis.

Preventative measures for influenza were published in the National School Services periodical on October 15, 1918 (courtesy of OISE Library).

Impact on Ontario Schools

As early reports of the Spanish flu emerged from schools across North America, public health officials called on teachers to instil reverence and habits for proper hygiene. Hoping to prevent the flu from spreading, the United States’ National School Service periodical ran health advice in its autumn 1918 issues targeted specifically to teachers.

In November 1918, the publication implored that “the most effective single weapon with which to combat influenza and other communicable diseases is a popular health education.” Teachers in lower grades were instructed to teach simple directions for hand washing and sharing cups, while teachers in upper grades conducted lessons on infectious diseases.

Students learned the importance of coughing and sneezing into a handkerchief to prevent the spread of air droplets containing “germ-laden mucus”, while those who failed to cover their mouths were considered “careless and ignorant”. In the years leading up to the outbreak, educators were already calling for increased sanitation measures in their school buildings, believing that open-air classrooms and better ventilation would curb the spread of colds and influenza.

In the 1913 handbook The Teacher’s Health: a Study in the Hygiene of an Occupation, practices such as daily sweeping of classrooms, washing the floors weekly, dusting furniture and cleaning cloak rooms were also expected to lessen the spread of infectious diseases.

Children at Victoria Park Forest School in Toronto practice blowing their noses in 1913 (photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives).

The first influenza cases in Ontario schools were recorded in the middle of September, leading some schools such as the Ontario School for the Deaf in Belleville to enforce strict early quarantines, during which no one was allowed to enter the boarding school grounds unless out of necessity.

Despite the quarantine, the school initially remained open, while students were distributed throughout school buildings and classrooms to avoid contagion and encouraged to play outside to remain in good physical condition. At the time, public health officials in Ontario were still debating the effectiveness of school closures. On October 12, 1918, the Ontario Provincial Board of Health issued a warning to health authorities against the closure of schools in cities and towns, reasoning that children were better supervised in schools than on streets and playgrounds and therefore “less likely to infect one-another in classrooms than in the home.”

In the same warning, officials also declared school closures to be “economically wasteful” and that it would be “just as rational and much more effective to stop all travel on street cars and trains and stop people from entering shops, eating places, etc., as to close schools, churches and theatres.”

Schools in Toronto relied on daily inspections of students to identify new cases. However, schools in rural settings were given more permissions to close, as officials reasoned that country schools were more likely to bring children together than to keep them apart.

A schoolboy receives a visit from a public health nurse in 1914. Schools with health programs fared better from influenza (photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives).

Despite best efforts to keep school doors open, the outbreak in autumn 1918, combined with a harsh winter weather season, forced closures across Ontario from stretches of one week to three months. While outbreaks were difficult to contain once they were detected, school districts that had already implemented systems for medical inspection fared significantly better than those that had not.

In the 1918 Report of the Minister of Education, the superintendent of schools in Brantford, Ont., noted that while Brantford had suffered more flu fatalities per population than any other Canadian city, schools had successfully prevented any student or staff deaths, attributing the success to their proactive appointment of a school nurse.

Prolonged school closures significantly hindered student progress. In Ontario, summer exams were pushed back two weeks in order to give teachers and students more time to prepare, and examiners were instructed to “bear in mind the distracting conditions of the year” while grading. Even for Ontario schools that remained open, attendance and student enrolment dropped significantly due to the influenza epidemic well into 1919. Schools in nearby New York claimed that “the school work of half the year will amount to little or nothing," leaving teachers to provide more intensive work to make up the difference in learning.

Photo of a word of caution against the Spanish flu, printed in a 1920 issue of the University of Toronto's The Varsity newspaper. It reads: Mister S. Flu is in our midst again a most unwelcome visitor. Those who know him best, the doctors, tell us that at the present time he has not assumed dangerous proportions, epidemically speaking; and they also say that he has yet to show a malignant character. But in spite of these mild aspects of the present situation it behooves everyone to take every precaution possible. The Varsity is printing in its columns a list of preventative measures supplied by an expert. This list is not inserted for the purpose of filling up space but for the use of those who read the paper. These precautions are simple and The Varsity believes if faithfully carried out will be found very effective in warding off this dread disease. Having taken proper care of yourself, don't get wind up! Those who worry and fret about it often make themselves susceptible. By all means keep your nerve!

A word of caution against the Spanish flu, printed in the February 4, 1920 issue of U of T’s The Varsity newspaper (courtesy U of T Libraries).

Impact on the University of Toronto

The influenza pandemic also impacted postsecondary education at the University of Toronto with the closure of buildings and the suspension of classes between Oct. 19th to Nov. 5 after Queen’s Hall, Burwash Hall, and St. Michael’s College reported a high number of cases. All activity on campus was impacted, even as some described the cancellations as a “flu holiday” with many escaping to the countryside to enjoy the short break in classes, while others helped with fall chores and caring for sick relatives.

There were worries that the interruption in program delivery might extend studies into the spring, but the consensus on campus was to shorten the Christmas holiday to make up for the lost time. Adding to the uncertainty, the university was concerned with further building closures due to a city ban on soft coal that into the winter resulted in the closure of Convocation Hall.

Stories of the personal impact of the sudden, unexpected and influenza-related deaths were shared within the university community. The U of T president was himself rumoured to have come down with the flu and it was a time when stories of illness and death were frequent, as the war had taken its toll and the flu had taken hold.

Despite the situation, important contributions by the university to fight the pandemic included the many students who did humanitarian work, as well as the critical efforts of the Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories to prepare, distribute and test an experimental influenza vaccine that was being delivered for free across Canada.

On November 2, 1918, as the Medical Officer of Health ordered the continuing closure of Ontario schools due to prevailing concern of a fuel famine, the university contemplated reopening to carry on with its important efforts. It would take several years for Ontario education to recover from both the war and the dreaded “Black October of 1918” when the province reported on the experiences and lessons learned from the ravages of the disease.

Connaught Antitoxin Laboratories at U of T in 1914. The lab would go on to help deliver experimental influenza vaccines (courtesy of U of T Libraries).

The outbreak of the Spanish Influenza of 1918 was a historic pandemic. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact so many across the world, at this time it appears it may not statistically compare to that of the Spanish flu; and we can hope that this trend remains.

However, the reflections from the perspectives of Ontario education, and the representations and sentiments expressed during a prior pandemic, bear some resemblance to our present and offer valuable insight on our past and future.

Jenna Mlynaryk is a Toronto Academics Library intern at the OISE Library and Master of Information student, Class of 2020. Denise Makovac is the executive assistant to the Dean of OISE – and a Master of Education student, class of 2021.