How did schools reopen after the polio epidemic?

Updated August 10, 2021 | Infoplease Staff

The Question:

Obviously people are talking about schools reopening soon. I know that back during polio there was a lot of similar stuff like people leaving cities and closing schools. How did they reopen schools after polio?

The Answer:

The polio outbreaks of the 20th century caused immense panic in the states. Polio is quite different from COVID. It largely affected and killed children, for example. But it did prompt a comparably huge flight from the cities and extended closures. Since polio was considered a children's disease (also called "infantile paralysis") schools were a major issue. 

Back during the polio epidemics, like during the current pandemic, the guidelines and suggestions varied around the country. In New York in 1916 (perhaps the worst polio outbreak) schools simply forgave or extended leniency to parents who kept their kids home. The schools opened, after some delays, but a New York Times report from the time estimated more than 100,000 kids were absent from school despite being allowed to return.

A 2017 study from the NBER concluded that school closures and voluntary attendance did contribute to long-term academic shortfalls, especially among working-age students. It's important to note, though, that many of those students who left school because of polio elected to start working instead of return to school. 

In terms of medical advice upon returning school, there wasn't anything very comprehensive. The way the disease spread was misunderstood, and it the disease was less prevalent after the summer months.

So, to answer the question, the guideline for returning to school was "take the risk if you want." The polio epidemic flared up across the states for several decades until the invention of the polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk. 

Sources: TIME, the New York Times, the National Bureau of Economic Research

-The Editors

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