How Did NJ Reopen Schools in 1918?

I love history; but, I love it presented in the context of life during a time period. Don’t merely give me dates, troops movements, politics. What else was going on? What was happening in Art? Literature? Science? What were kids doing? In essence I want inclusive snapshots of time. Thus, I started this essay with a research question: What happened to NJ schools when the Influenza of 1918 pandemic hit the state? And of course, one thing led to another, ending in this blog.

In 1918, World War I was raging in Europe. The best selling book? The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez (thanks to Project Gutenberg, you can read it for free Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote Mysticism and Logic; Matisse, Miro and Klee were creating artworks. Stravinsky, Bartok and Irving Berlin brought music to life; and on August 25, 1918, Leonard Bernstein was born ensuring more music to come. Max Planck won the Nobel Prize for his introduction to quantum theory. Americans got their first taste of Daylight Savings Time on March 31, 1918. Also in 1918, Missouri became the last state in the union to ratify legislation for compulsory education. And, people could send airmail letters between NYC and Washington, DC.

But the biggest event of 1918 unfolded on March 4, 1918 when soldiers at Fort Riley Kansas became ill and died. It was the start of what would become known as the Spanish Flu of 1918 (yet, it didn’t start in Spain!). That initial outbreak was somewhat contained and mild. But then soldiers shipped out to Europe bringing the disease with them. The contagion spread through Europe and then came back to America. In New Jersey, the second wave caught fire on September 15, 1918 at Fort Dix. In late September, Newark residents became ill after an outbreak at the nearby Caldwell Rifle Range, a naval facility. By October 1, 1918, the State of New Jersey had declared the illness a reportable disease.

Roaming through old newspapers I wanted to know what happened to schools in NJ. I found very little information. I was surprised until I read a piece by Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

[Alfred] Crosby, in the final chapter of his book on the pandemic, wonders about the disappearance of the pandemic from the American memory as well. In the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, 1919-21, he reports, there are thirteen inches of column space devoted to citations of baseball stories, forty-seven inches devoted to Prohibition, twenty inches devoted to Bolshevism, and eight inches devoted to the flu. John Dos Passos, who crossed the Atlantic on a troopship on which soldiers were dying of the Spanish flu every day, has just one reference to the flu in his novel “1919” and a brief mention of the pandemic in his fictionalized war memoir, “Three Soldiers.” The pandemic is largely absent from the writing of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway as well, all of whom witnessed its savagery at first hand. “The average college graduate born since 1918 literally knows more about the Black Death of the fourteenth century than the World War I pandemic,” Crosby writes. He offers a number of explanations for this. In the end, though, [Crosby] concludes that the virus’s figurative disappearance is of a piece with its literal disappearance, that we don’t remember it because we can’t find it. 

Finding history sometimes means going beyond newspaper stories and instead scouring church bulletins, journals, or long-buried and forgotten school board minutes and other government documents. From my computer, while quarantining, I could access a lot, but not enough to satisfy my curiosity. But here’s what I learned.

In 1911, then New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson appointed Calvin N. Kendall to be the New Jersey’s tenth Education Commissioner ( Dr. Kendall spent his early years in Upstate New York, in Oneida county, eventually attending Hamilton College. Before arriving in NJ, Dr. Kendall had worked in a number of places and had written a number of books including the Kendall Readers Primer and Teaching How to Read.

Obituary Calvin Kendall

From news clippings, Dr. Kendall seemed focused on improving education in NJ as opposed to any pandemic consequences. In fact, he had little to do apparently with decisions close to the ground.

NJ went into quarantine on October 7th according to an article which ran on October 17, 1918 in the Tuckerton Beacon. But, neither the Governor, Walter Edge, nor Dr. Kendall closed schools. Instead, local school boards were given that authority.

Clipping 1918 newspaper
Tuckerton Beacon, (Tuckerton, NJ) 17 October 1918 , front page.

How many New Jersey districts closed was not readily apparent through the newspaper stories I could access. A recent story in the Newark Advocate recounted a story from December 4, 1918 which said 793 students were out of school in Newark, and there were 195 confirmed cases of influenza. The Superintendent of Newark Schools at the time, O. J. Barnes, apparently kept schools open given the statement he made to the paper:

“The public schools are doing everything in their power to stamp out the influenza epidemic in our city. Instructions have been given teachers that no pupil having even a cold shall be permitted to attend school while the epidemic lasts. Furthermore, no teachers having a cold will be permitted to teach. In addition to the regular recess, the teachers are to ventilate their rooms thoroughly twice during the forenoon session and once during the afternoon session. At these times, the teachers are to give the pupils drill in calisthenics. In the high school, the rooms are to be thoroughly ventilated during the change of classes. The schools are entering upon an educational program with both pupils and parents that ought to help very materially in clearing up the health situation of the city.

“There are eight buildings in the city having up-to-date ventilating systems. These buildings are High School, Hartzler, Woodside, Mound, East Main, Conrad, Keller and Cherry Valley. There are 2,782 children attending these schools. In the remaining buildings in which ventilation is accomplished by means of windows and transoms, the greatest of care is being exercised to see that the children have plenty of fresh air. In fact, all the children of the city while in school are getting purer air than these same children get in the average home. When we consider the safeguards that are being placed around the children, we are sure that the children of the city are much better off in school than out of school. . .”

Barnegat was one district which closed.

Clipping 1918 newspaper
Tuckerton Beacon (Tuckerton, NJ) 10 October 1918, page 1

And Westbrook, NJ schools closed.

Clipping from 1918 newspaper
Tuckerton Beacon (Tuckerton, NJ) 10 October 1918, page 1

Ironically, on October 4, 1918, three days before the call for quarantine came, Commissioner Kendall declared October 13th as Education Day. And as a reader can see, Dr. Kendall was focused on the shortcomings of education and they impacted the American military.

Newspaper article 1918
Cranbury Press (Cranbury, NJ) 4 October 1918, p. 2.

New Jersey also needed more teachers and Dr. Kendall made that an issue before the pandemic.

Newspaper article 1918
Chatham Press,(Chatham, NJ) 13 July 1918, page 8.

(By the way, using a online salary converter, that $497.72 would equal $8,450.99 in 2020!)

New Jersey lifted the statewide quarantine on October 21, 1918; but again, Dr. Kendall let school boards decide when to restart teaching and learning.

Newspaper article 1918
New Jersey Courier (Toms River, NJ) 25 October 1918, front page.

Victory Gardens came into being during the war and schools were involved in helping to grow food.

Newspaper article on gardens 1918.
Westfield Leader (Westfield, NJ) 9 October 1918, page 6.

By early 1919, Dr. Kendall encouraged New Jersey’s students to finish their war studies.

Newspaper article from 1919.
Tuckerton Beacon (Tuckerton, NJ) 13 February 1919, page 2.

Also in 1919, Dr. Kendall continued the push for Americanism which was a common term used in stories I read about the war. Essentially, Kendall looked to be a Commissioner with an agenda which would play beyond New Jersey. And by then, Woodrow Wilson, the man who had appointed Dr. Kendall, was the President of the United States.

Newspaper article from 1919.
Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, NJ) 18 April 1919, page 15.

And while I have no idea what students actually did during quarantine in New Jersey, I did come across this 1918 jump roping rhyme.

I had a little bird, 

its name was Enza. 

I opened the window, and in-flew-enza.

If those of us in New Jersey were looking for historical wisdom on how to handle the potential reopening of schools during this Covid-19 pandemic, we’re out of luck without some deep digging, and even then, who knows what we will and will not find. One has to wonder if there are any 1918 school board minutes anywhere in the state. Hopefully in 2020, someone at the Department of Education is keeping good notes; there will be lots of newspaper stories. When people look back from the year 2120, hopefully we will have left them with better guidance and information.

Other resources for you:

Edvard Munch's  Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu,  1919
Edvard Munch’s “Self-Portrait after the Spanish Flu,” 1919

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