How NYC taught school during a lethal outbreak

School districts all over the country are facing a dilemma right now. Should they hold classes in school buildings—or keep schools closed, as they have been since the coronavirus pandemic began, and continue teaching kids at home via digital classes?

In the early 1900s, New York school and health officials faced a similar dilemma. So they came up with a novel way to teach kids safely under the threat of a lethal infection: they built outdoor and open-air classrooms on rooftops, in schoolyards, and even on ferryboats (above, 1908).

Pioneered in Germany in the early 1900s, fresh-air classrooms, as they were also known, were adopted by some New York City schools to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in the city’s crowded, airless school buildings.

Tuberculosis may not have been a full-fledged pandemic in New York at the time. But the “white plague,” also known as the “captain of the men of death,” was Gotham’s leading killer in 1900.

A cure for TB wasn’t developed until the 1940s. In the 1900s and 1910s, treatment meant fresh air and sunlight. Prevention efforts included public health campaigns against spitting and building apartments and hospitals that allowed for better ventilation and light.

A school for kids stricken with TB opened on a ferry docked at the East River (top photo) in 1908. Four more ferries and the Vanderbilt Clinic on 16th Street were also converted into classrooms, with students gathered around on chairs and a teacher leading lessons, according to the 1918 book, Open-Air Schools.

Thanks to their success, public health officials began thinking about using the same strategy to prevent infections in kids who might be predisposed to the disease because of their home environment or their own physical health. They also proposed that so-called “normal” pupils would benefit as well.

So in 1909, the city set aside $6500 for the construction of open-air classrooms, according to the New York Times on October 30 of that year.

An elementary school on Carmine Street began holding “open-window” classes, as did a grade school in Chelsea. In these and other public schools, “there is no supplementary feeding, no rest period, and no extra clothes provided,” Open-Air Schools explained. “The children wear their street wraps in cold weather.”

[At right: A student in an outdoor class on the Lower East Side, 1910]

Horace Mann, the private school then located in Morningside Heights, also launched open-air classes. The school built open classrooms on the roof, with windowed walls on three sides of each room. “Indoor toilet rooms are provided and also an indoor room where children may go to get warm if necessary.”

Kindergartners were not spared from the open-air school idea (above). Young kids at Brooklyn’s Friends School were taught on the roof. “As yet the children are wearing their own coats and wraps, but later in the season we expect to have sitting-out bags…only in the really cold weather are the blankets to wrap up the smaller children used,” a November 5, 1911 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article stated, quoting a teacher.

In the coldest weather, some schools provided students with a new garment called a “parka,” or “fuzzy Eskimo suit,” as one Brooklyn school described them in a 1933 Brooklyn Times Union article (photo above).

Other cities across the country launched their own outdoor or open-air classrooms, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston.

The open-air school movement seems to have died down by the 1930s though, perhaps because TB wasn’t quite as feared, and a new scourge—polio—began causing panic, especially in the summertime when public pools opened.

Could New York City kids (and their teachers) handle open-air or outdoor classes today? Interestingly, according to the newspaper sources used in this post, parents did not have a problem with the open-air policy.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: LOC; third photo: MCNY, 90.13.4.66; fourth photo: MCNY 90.13.4.68; fifth photo: MCNY 90.13.2.36; sixth photo: LOC; seventh photo: Brooklyn Times Union; eighth photo: LOC]

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6 Responses to “How NYC taught school during a lethal outbreak”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    It will be (painfully) interesting to see how various school districts and other activities that rely on indoor venues will handle the pandemic this fall, winter and spring. I fear that we have been lulled into a false sense of comfort with the overall good weather this summer. But as the ’60s song by Traffic went, “Who knows what tomorrow may bring?”

  2. Ricky Says:

    When I visited NYC in the late 70’s I took a tour of the UN. They told us there were only 3 cases of TB left in the world and when those were done TB would be eradicated. Well, I guess we know that didn’t happen.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Nope. Someone close to me actually contracted TB out of the blue just by living in New York City about a decade ago. I can say that the Department of Health keeps close tabs on every new case though.

  3. Lady G. Says:

    That’s an amazing piece of history I didn’t know about. I always learn something fascinating on this blog. I think some parents today would absolutely shun the open-air policy. But with more money pumped into the school system, they could construct and provide better facilities.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I totally agree. Why not try it, right? If I were a kid, I’d be thrilled to be outdoors rather than in a stuffy classroom…or worse, at home trying to pay attention to a Zoom video.

  4. Kevin Callihan Says:

    Thank you. I plan to share this with several people at Serial and the NYT about their episodes regarding the improvement of public education.

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