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Stephen Mihm

When Schools Closed in 1916, Some Students Never Returned

Research into the long-term consequences of a polio outbreak found that older students are at highest risk for harm.

Polio was the concern in 1916.

Polio was the concern in 1916.

Source: Bettmann/Getty Images

American parents and educators alike are split on whether schools should reopen in the fall. Advocates point to flattening coronavirus-infection curves in many states and studies downplaying the role of children in spreading the virus. Opponents focus on rising cases in other states as well as reports of serious health issues for children coming down with a Kawasaki-like disease.

The debate won’t be settled before the big decision must be made. But we do have some historical data that sheds light on the long-term costs of keeping kids out of school to avoid a pandemic. It comes from a long-forgotten polio epidemic that struck the U.S. just over a century ago.