Philipp Ager, Katherine Eriksson, Ezra Karger, Peter Nencka, Melissa A. Thomasson: School Closures During the 1918 Flu Pandemic, in: NBER Working Paper Series, Working Paper No. 28246 (December 2020), DOI: 10.3386/w28246.
The Covid 19 pandemic has reignited interest in responses to the 1918/19 influenza pandemic, the last comparable public health emergency in the United States. During both pandemics, many state and local governments made the controversial decision to close schools. The authors studied the short- and long-term effects of 1918-19 pandemic-related school closures on children.
The authors found precise null effect of school closures in 1918 on school attendance in 1919-20 using newly collected data on the exact timing of school closings for 168 cities in 1918-19. Linking affected children to their adult outcomes in the 1940 census, they also found precise null effects of school closures on educational attainment, wage income, non-wage income, and hours worked in 1940. The authors findings are not inconsistent with an emerging literature that finds negative short-term effects of Covid-19-related school closures on learning. The situation in 1918 was starkly different from today: (1) schools closed in 1918 for many fewer days on average, (2) the 1918 virus was much more deadly for young adults and children, boosting absenteeism even in schools that stayed open, and (3) the lack of effective remote learning platforms in 1918 may have reduced the scope for school closures to increase socioeconomic inequality.