Resilient Public Schools: Bright and Dark Sides (Part 1)

For the past few months I have been thinking a lot about the upending of public schools by the Covid-19 pandemic. As someone who has studied the history of school reform in the U.S., I have been trying to make connections with the past that might inform present-day debates over district policies and classroom practices. So I am beginning a multi-part series of posts on the central point I have found that connects the past with the present: the resiliency of public schools over the past century and a half.

When educators speak of resiliency, they more often than not speak of it as a personal trait that individuals have such as perseverance, grit, the capacity to bounce back from adversity, and similar points. In these posts, I use the concept to capture one critical institutional feature of a well-known community institution that too often goes unnoticed.

In doing the research on the institutional resiliency of public schools over the past 150 years, I have also discovered that there is a bright and dark side to this important concept as applied to public schools. I welcome comments on these draft posts.

Hurricanes, earthquakes, and viral pandemics have closed schools in the past. These temporary disruptions forced parents, government officials, and school leaders to find alternative ways to organize schooling and teach the young. Each emergency revealed anew the interconnectedness of our lives. Parents realized the complexities of home teaching of content and skills, the need for enormous patience, and, yes, the importance of schools to the rest of society. Each upheaval also revealed dependence upon new technologies of the day such as newspapers in the 1910s and 1920s, radio in the 1930s and instructional television in the 1950s; school officials drafted the technologies of the day to use in coping with short-term school closures.

When disasters struck later in the century, classroom lessons had already become mixes of face-to-face instruction layered with teacher-directed activities where students used classroom and personal devices (e.g., 1:1 laptops, tablets, smart boards, and phones). Then Covid-19 arrived.

As a result of the 2020 pandemic, school boards shuttered schools and quickly shifted to home-based remote instruction. Moving from age-graded, bricks-and-mortar buildings to home schooling, out-of-work parents including single moms, were suddenly sitting with their children in kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms at laptops and tablets following teacher-directed lessons.

Many districts, however, after altering ventilation systems, disinfecting surfaces, providing soap and water, put in place protocols of masking, spacing students in classrooms, and washing hands before offering in-person instruction for limited days a week. Hybrids of remote and face-to-face instruction sprang up across the nation’s schools.[i]

The rush to technology over two pandemic years, however, should not obscure other ways that schools have adapted to crises of massive school closures. While surely technologies can and should play a role at such times—and did so in the past–it is not the only way that schools have dealt with crises by altering operations; schools have absorbed rapid, unplanned changes also by re-organizing instruction.

Much can be learned, then, from prior experiences with massive school closures when different ways of organizing and dispensing instruction have arisen out of necessity. Examining such varied ways of organizing schooling and using technologies of the day can make clear to parents, policymakers, and practitioners that public schools and the age-graded school structure are (and have been) resilient institutions when disasters strike.

Prior disruptions

1. Influenza pandemic in U.S. 1918-1919

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic killed millions across the globe and around 675,000 Americans (ten times more than died in World War I). While that pandemic occurred, U.S. schools and businesses closed, crowds were banned, and other similar responses to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic occurred.

Schools eventually reopened after the influenza pandemic (Philadelphia had closed its schools October 3, 1918 and welcomed students back October 28; Seattle, Washington closed its schools October 6, 1918 and allowed students to return on November 12).[ii]

And what happened when schools reopened?

They returned to their original state—another marker of resiliency. In examining those districts following the influenza pandemic, knowing what the reform-driven Progressive movement had done across the country in the 1910s is helpful. These reforms included governing districts through bureaucratic hierarchies, creating new curricula focused on children and youth learning by doing such as with projects, using new technologies such as film, and schools becoming medical, social service, and community centers. After the influenza pandemic ended, schools returned to the familiar age-graded school organization and those Progressive reforms. [iii]

2. Polio epidemics

In 1916, 1937, and 1944, polio epidemics struck down children across the nation. Poliomyletis or “infantile paralysis,” as it was called, had broken out in other years but in the three years cited here, newspaper accounts and reports document the onset and spread of the disease. Usually occurring during summers, these epidemics lasted into the fall resulting in school closures.

For example, in 1937, Chicago, a district serving over 325,000 students, delayed opening their schools for three weeks due to the spreading virus. Recall that the earlier decades of Progressive innovations had been incorporated into schooling, particularly affection for modern technology (e.g., stereopticon viewers, films, radio). Elementary and secondary school teachers developed brief 15-minute radio lessons that were beamed into students’ homes.

Aided by six radio stations and public libraries, schedules for lessons with assignments, questions, and directions—Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for social studies and science with math and English slotted for Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday–appeared in daily newspapers so students could locate the time and radio frequency to dial up the particular teacher-directed lesson.  To help parents negotiate radio lessons, over 20 teachers staffed a special telephone number—a “hot line”—to answer questions.

Of course, there were complaints from parents and teachers. The lessons moved too quickly; there was poor signal reception; a sizable fraction of families lacked radios.  After polio cases subsided, school reopened later in the fall. Radio lessons disappeared. [iv]

3. Katrina hurricane

In 2005, hurricane Katrina flattened the city of New Orleans. Nearly all public schools (110 out of 126) were destroyed or extensively damaged. Many students went to school elsewhere in Louisiana, Texas, and other states. Some did not attend any school for months. In place of parish public schools, a system of public charter schools under private management appeared under the jurisdiction of a state-authorized Recovery School District. Political muscle from state officials and private donors supported the venture. Except for three non-charter schools, 95 percent are now charter schools operating under the Orleans Parish School Board.

What occurred in New Orleans after Katrina was a revolution in public school governance. Instead of local citizens elected to district boards (parishes in Louisiana) to direct schools, the state created independent charter schools and companies that managed chains of such schools in the city. As for technology use in classrooms, it played a non-consequential role in these changes then and since.

In effect, then, the historic shift in funding and governance that occurred after Katrina did not disturb the fundamental age-graded structure of New Orleans schools. District governance changed but school structures endured. Keep in mind that adaptability is another sign of institutional resiliency. [v]

These prior disruptions of schools, except for New Orleans where destruction and closure of schools resulted in major governance changes, produced no substantial shifts in school organization, curriculum, or instruction a century ago, before World War II, and in the early 2000s.  Districts mobilized technologies of the day for emergencies and downsized classroom usage of technology when crises had passed.

Of note, then, is that the age-graded school withstood disasters and adapted, essentially remaining the primary way of organizing school for instruction.



[i] I use the noun “instruction,” as in “remote instruction,” “online instruction,” and “distance instruction” rather than the noun “learning” simply because there is no body of evidence that “online learning,” or similar descriptors does, indeed, benefit students.

I do not include school closures that resulted from policy decisions such as the closing of Prince Edward County schools in Virginia to avoid desegregating their schools. See: https://www.virginiahistory.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/civil-rights-movement-virginia/closing-prince

In the winter of 2021, the Centers for Disease Control issued a step-by-step plan for reopening schools. Guidelines for a safe return to in-school instruction gave authoritative permission for many previously closed schools to reopen. Apoorva Mandevilli, et. al., “C.D.C. Offers Path to Reopening Nation’s Schools,” New York Times, February 13, 2021.

[ii]For Seattle schools, see “American Influenza Epidemic: Seattle Washington,” in University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine at: https://www.influenzaarchive.org/cities/city-seattle.html#;

for Philadelphia, see Alfred Crosby, Americas Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 74, 85

[iii] Lawrence A. Cremin, The Transformation of the School: Progressivism in American Education, 1876-1957 (New York: Vintage Books, 1964); Herbert M. Kliebard, The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958 (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986); and Diane Ravitch, Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000); Tracy Steffes, School, Society, and State: A New Education To Govern Modern America, 1890-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); David Gamson, The Importance of Being Urban: Designing the Progressive School District, 1890-1940 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,

[iv] Michael Hines, “In Chicago, Schools Closed during a 1937 Polio Epidemic and Kids Learned from Home–over the Radio,” Washington Post, April 3, 2020.

[v] Rebecca Klein, “These Are the Schools That Hurricane Katrina Destroyed,” HuffPost, August 26, 2015; Kate Babineau, et. al,  “The State of Public Education in New Orleans, 2019-2020,” The Cowen Institute at Tulane University at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED607281.pdf

Douglas Harris, Charter School City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

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Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

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