For everyone History repeats: COVID-19 or 1918?

  • By Myke Bartlett
  • This article was published more than 4 years ago.
  • 5 Jun 2020
Nowra Public School converted into a temporary hospital during the influenza epidemic, 1919. (Photo: Sydney Living Museums)

COVID-19 disrupted Australian schools and society in a way that would have seemed unimaginable only months earlier. But it isn’t the first time schools have been forced to close.

As the deadly virus raged across the nation, Australia went into lockdown. Schools and universities closed their doors. Large sporting events, such as football matches or horse races, were either cancelled or went ahead with no one in the stands. Churches asked their congregations to stay at home. Pubs faced strict regulations on how long they could be open. States closed their borders and the economy tanked. Hospitals filled with the most vulnerable members of our community – particularly our First Nations people. Those who didn’t follow the new hygiene and social-distancing rules were given hefty fines by the police.

It’s a story that has become suddenly and terrifyingly familiar to us, but this is not a description of 2020, but of 1919. The parallels are quite uncanny. Like the Black Death before it, the poorly named Spanish flu is thought to have begun in China and spread across Europe (the Spanish king becoming its first high-profile victim) before being imported into Australia. A century ago, pandemics moved far more slowly – it took months, not weeks for the virus to reach our shores via infected soldiers returning from Europe at the end of the First World War – but resulted in 40% of Australia’s population infected and a death toll of 13,000. 

The impact of the virus was felt keenly by Australian schools. As with COVID-19, children were considered less at risk than adults, but measures taken to protect the population were profoundly disruptive to their schooling. Different states shut down schools at different times during 1919 (as we’ve seen in 2020), with some schools transformed into makeshift hospitals as the health system was overrun.

Then as now, the effectiveness of school closures was the source of some debate, although a 2007 study from the US eventually showed that those cities who acted early by closing schools – as part of wider social-distancing measures – had a lower peak mortality and lower overall morbidity than cities who waited longer to do so. Further studies have borne out these findings. It seems the balancing of disruption to studies and worsening infection rates will always be fraught.

Children in fancy dress for Red Cross Day, 1918. (Photo: George Murphy, Flickr)

World War I

Of course, Australian schools had already been severely disrupted by the Great War, with many of them becoming de-facto military academies. From 1911-1929, boys aged 12 to 14 undertook compulsory military training at school, taught by school teachers. This junior cadet training had a focus on drills and patriotic duty, requiring students to demonstrate proficiency in miniature rifle shooting, swimming, first aid or running exercises.

The emphasis in the classroom – where civic values, patriotism and duty to the British Empire already dominated early 20th-century education – shifted ever more towards outright propaganda. School assemblies paid respects to those at war, sang the national anthem and patriotic songs, recited pledges and saluted the flag.

The war also dominated lessons, informed by the government’s education gazettes. Students used sand trays, maps and 3D models to gain an understanding of the geography of Gallipoli and standard components of military camps. Essay titles tended towards subjects such as ‘What I can do towards winning the war’, while maths lessons employed facts and figures about about war supplies.

Schools were also expected to do their part when it came to funding the war effort.

Boys and girls were encouraged to play dress-ups in soldier and nurse uniforms, while pamphlets and storybooks urged them to be thrifty – or even donate their pocket money – to pay for the war effort. Even early childhood toys were drafted to stir patriotic fervour and bloodlust: teddy bears were dressed in national uniform and young boys were handed toy machine guns, airplanes, battleships and tanks.

Schools were also expected to do their part when it came to funding the war effort. Following the Anzac landings and devastation in Belgium and France in 1915, public schools raised funds for Belgian orphans. Students made comfort items to send to soldiers at the front, including socks, balaclavas and scarves. When wool ran out, students spun their own using spinning wheels and drop spindles, and parcelled their gifts with short messages of support. 

Throughout the war, schools were fast to respond when there were shortages such as bandages, muslin for dressings, sand bags and scrap metal.

Brighton Technical School boys crouch under their desks, 1942. (Photo: State Library of Victoria)

Return to war

The Second World War would be even more disruptive for Australian schools, coming as it did off the back of the Great Depression, in which school funding was slashed, teachers salaries dropped by more than a quarter and many students had to drop out of education entirely to meet the demand for cheap child labour and to support their families. During the war, conscription created a shortage of teachers, while many schools were requisitioned by the armed forces, with students shipped out to various locations. 

Melbourne’s MacRob was used as the US Army HQ in 1942 and later became a base for the RAAF. Queensland, schools were closed entirely amid fears of a Japanese invasion. When some reopened a few months later, slit trenches were dug on the grounds as air raid shelters. Evacuation procedures were regularly rehearsed, with students practised at “duck and cover”, squatting under their desks. Teachers were taught First Aid techniques. Kindergartens remained closed until the end of 1942, while classes up to Year 6 only attended in the morning. Trains stood ready to evacuate students to the country at short notice. The invasion never happened and, across the country, anxieties eased. Trenches dug at schools soon became playgrounds for kids.

Schools have always been a cornerstone of Australian society, helping young minds engage with and respond to a world that can often be frightening, from wars to pandemics, from the September 11 terrorist attacks to the threat of climate change. We don’t yet know the full impact of COVID-19 on the future of Australian education. But we do now have first-hand experience of educators’ capacity to adapt to disruption in ways unimaginable a decade ago. So it is comforting, perhaps, to remember that the current situation is not entirely unprecedented. Sooner or later, today’s news will become tomorrow’s history lesson.

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