“We Made the Best Out of a Situation That Was Bad”: School Closings in Modern American Education
Karen Dunak and Shannon Smith
Sports. Marching Band. Choir. Clubs. Yearbook. Homecoming. Prom. Graduation. A contemporary American high school student could survey this list and, in combining some selection of the extracurricular, social, or celebratory elements of secondary education, be able to communicate the shape and style of their high school experience. Following the Second World War and continuing through the unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, a high school education, previously the province of the economic elite, became an experience broadly shared among young Americans thanks to the prosperity of the post-World War II years, child labor legislation of the New Deal and, later, a Cold War-inspired desire to ensure American youth could keep pace with (and surpass) their Soviet counterparts. Where in 1900 6.4 percent of the youth population graduated from high school, by 1956 that figure was up to 62.3 percent. The volume of the student body escalated as a result of the post-World War II baby boom, and the number of high school attendees jumped from fewer than 6 million in 1950 to more than 13 million in 1970, when graduation rates plateaued around 80 percent.
The same might be said for university education. Since the 1960s, entry into the world of higher education has expanded dramatically, from roughly 6 million students arriving on campus in the fall of 1965 to 19.9 million in 2019. And while the “college experience” varies from campus to campus and student to student based on age, socioeconomic standing, and any number of identity markers, elements of an idealized “experience” exist—sports, clubs, Greek organizations, and broader symbols and celebrations of social and academic achievement.
While one could look at a student’s course schedule, with its requisite English, math, science, social studies, language, and PE, and argue that academic instruction is the primary function of American schools, that has never been a universally held sentiment. Across the twentieth century, schools endeavored to provide important vocational and professional preparation, and even tried to prepare students for the practicalities of adult life. But teachers, administrators, reformers, and politicians also have regarded schools as important sites of democratization, social engagement, and civic training, where students of different backgrounds—though often limited in actual diversity—might engage with and learn from one another.
In the spring of 2020, those educational goals were disrupted as the spread of COVID-19 necessitated the closing of schools across the United States. Students mourned their loss of rituals and traditions—spring break, prom, final games with long-time teammates, graduation—as important rites of passage from high school or college into adulthood. Many graduating students found it difficult to plan for the future. Continuing students expressed worries that remote learning might continue indefinitely, jeopardizing future educational milestones. Schools organized virtual proms and drive-by graduations. In the end, students and teachers missed each other and their sense of what schooling “should have been.”
Students today are used to facing fears in their education, from anxieties about college acceptance and grades and then post-college job placement to the trauma of gun violence in their schools. But the coronavirus created chaos and a loss of control well beyond the usual stresses of education. Students, teachers, and administrators all faced questions and concerns as schools shut down. How would they complete their coursework and receive grades? How would students access the resources they normally found at school, from technology and school supplies to mental health and safety to school breakfasts and lunches? For some college students, where would they live or eat? Could international students travel home or would moving to online education threaten their student visa? These emotional and logistical concerns presented threats as real as the virus.
As we consider the elements of the high school and college experiences increasingly understood as “universal” from the late 1940s on, our aim is to encourage the comparative assessment of this moment with other moments of educational disruption at the secondary and post-secondary level. There are commonalities between the students whose schooling was disrupted by the coronavirus and students in the past who lost their opportunity for schooling, whether due to health concerns, efforts at racial integration, or politically charged clashes between students and administrative authority. Students past and present felt a loss of control over their circumstances and felt robbed of their expected school experiences. They were concerned about how they would learn—online, correspondence, or other technology—or if they would have the chance to learn at all. What would their lost learning do to their development and future careers? Many faced real fears for their safety, either at school or at home, due to disease or violence. Many grappled with trauma without the mental health supports of counselors and friends. Students questioned the leadership of administrators, teachers, and parents. Could they trust that adults were doing the right thing? The future seemed uncertain as they hesitated to make plans or lost hope for their intended goals while haunted by the fear, when will it happen again? Likewise, faculty and administrators experienced common frustrations about how best to teach and how to help students catch up from any setbacks. Some never felt such concern or responsibility for their students’ welfare as when they could not see them regularly. All felt their experiences did not fulfill the long-promised educational expectations of previous decades.
By offering examples and guiding questions for other case studies, students can compare recent school closures with disruptions of the past. Did students stay out of school out of necessity or by choice? What were the specific fears and uncertainties of each event, and did that lead to different responses? How did the causes of school closures influence institutions’ plans to protect students? Were the people making decisions directly affected by their choices? Was the event a “great equalizer” with everyone experiencing similar results, or did particular identities or status differences mean students were affected differently? What was the impact on enrollment—did students come back to school, quit, or go elsewhere? Did people think the lost schooling was worth the goal? What services did students miss that are normally provided through schools? How did people living through those events understand those moments in time, and did their attitudes change as time passed?
The coronavirus is only the most recent health fear to drive schools to close. Across the first half of the twentieth century, American communities lived—particularly in summer months—in perpetual fear of polio. A disease that attacks the nervous system and can result in paralysis, polio frightened parents particularly because infants and children were among the worst affected. The apparent randomness of the disease, and the fact that it seemed to have little to do with cleanliness or class status put its spread at odds with an image of post-World War II America as a carefree age of endless possibility. Highly contagious, polio often peaked in the summer, as the disease spread through direct oral contact with either a person or infected fecal matter. As a result, it was not uncommon for community pools and beaches, amusement and neighborhood parks to close, for Sunday schools to cease meeting, for movie theaters to deny children entry, and for parents to cancel summer birthday parties and keep children indoors. During years when summer numbers hadn’t yet dipped in August, schools across the United States delayed their opening by several weeks; in 1952 schools in nine states delayed opening. But spikes during school months led to some instances of school closure—as well as debate about the necessity or effectiveness of such a measure.
In September 1948, Tom Smoot, class president and captain of the football team at the Baylor School in Chattanooga, confided in a classmate that he felt unwell, stating “I hurt all over.” Two weeks later, he was dead, having succumbed to polio. Other students were afflicted by the disease, and the school closed for nearly a month. After students at the all-male military boarding school were sent home, the institution undertook a massive disinfectant effort. Teachers taught by correspondence and maintained regular contact with students via mail. To Baylor parents, Headmaster Herbert Barks wrote, “I have tried to impress upon each boy the importance of keeping up these assignments and do this work. If the work is properly done, we should be able to catch up and avoid having to extend the school year very much, if any. May I recommend that you watch your boy carefully and see that he gets plenty of sleep.”
With an eye toward the incubation period of the virus, the administration agreed to reopen when no new cases had been detected for two weeks. When school resumed on October 12, and even with the decision to cancel what remained of the school’s football season, enrollment remained strong. Only seven students opted not to return to campus.
The inconsistent, often brief educational disruption of polio differs from the extensive educational disruption of COVID19, but the disease disrupted American life at more regular intervals and had a perpetually haunting presence. But the uncertainty of when school would open—and the anxiety over what the school experience would be like—are feelings likely shared by students of the mid-twentieth century and those navigating the effects of COVID-19 today.
School Desegregation in Virginia
Beyond concerns for students’ health, schools also closed to avoid racial integration. In an act of massive resistance against desegregation from 1959 to 1964, Prince Edward County, Virginia, closed twenty-one public schools rather than integrate them, leaving 3,300 children without a public education. Black students had gone on strike in 1951 to protest their crowded and underfunded schools in a case that became part of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. Rather than integrate as ordered by the Supreme Court, in 1959 white county leaders diverted public funding to an all-white segregation academy while Black families pieced together an education plan or went without. Black children were taught by parents or siblings at kitchen tables, went to live with relatives out of state, took community-led skills courses in churches or learning centers, or even pretended to live in another county so they could attend school. Although Edward “Blue” Morton was supposed to enter the fifth grade in the fall of 1959, he recalled that “we just played school, you know, we didn’t go to school, so we just played school."
Black students used their time to join the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and locally protest to desegregate churches and stores, as well as the closing of public schools. “We made the best out of a situation that was bad,” recalled Phyllistine Ward Mosley. She and her friends organized a Hawaiian-themed prom: “We wanted the same high school experience and activities as if we were at …our home school…We didn’t want to miss out.”
The integrated Prince Edward Free School Association, with support of the Kennedy administration and private donors, organized formal classes in September 1963, serving almost 1,500 students, including four white children. The Free School grouped students by abilities rather than age, which was “mass confusion” for students. Warren “Ricky” Brown remembered, “If it wasn’t for sports, I probably wouldn’t have stayed in school.” The Free Schools provided necessary resources that the children had missed, from dental care to clothing to food. Theresa Clark said, “Everything a child needed was taken care of in that building…and the teachers were adamant—you’re going to learn.”
Because the private, segregated Prince Edward Academy was organized so quickly, white students were scattered across fifteen buildings in haphazard classrooms. Fourth grader Beverly Bass Hines served as the teacher for a second- and third-grade class for half the year: “I was chosen because I was a smart kid…But you know what I didn’t get and they didn’t get—a proper education.” Some white families struggled to pay private tuition so white children transferred to nearby counties or dropped out of school.
Many Black children, however, never received an education; by the time the federal government forced public schools to reopen in 1964, the illiteracy rate for Black children had jumped from 3 percent to 23 percent. The county continues to have higher illiteracy and poverty rates than other Virginia counties. Nearly 1,500 children did not attend public school for five years. In the 1960s and today, the burden of missed schooling fell most heavily on the most vulnerable. It remains to be seen how the transition to online learning, inconsistent technological access, and restricted classroom experiences will affect students’ completion rates and future earnings.
Brown v. Board of Education affected American education beyond the South. From the 1950s on, northern cities confronted the segregation of schools resulting not from a blatant system of Jim Crow inequality but by far less publicized limitations created by standard economic practices, federal housing policies, and municipal legislation. Among the most well-known and most volatile cases was the attempted desegregation of Boston public schools via the strategy of busing. Black students from Roxbury would be bused to predominantly white South Boston High School, and white students would travel to largely African American Roxbury High School.
The white community of South Boston was outraged by the court order mandating integration, not least of all because the powers that be, living in elite neighborhoods, were unaffected by their own policies. Imagining themselves a maligned and disempowered group, parents in South Boston created ROAR—Restore Our Alienated Rights. The group staged protests to disrupt the busing process and encouraged white students to boycott the public schools. One student interviewed by WGBH-TV, when asked how long he intended to remain out of school, replied, “All year if necessary.” When asked what he would do if he lost an entire year of school, he responded, “I guess I’ll have to lose it. That's all there is to it.”
He was not alone. On the first day of school, September 12, 1974, only twenty white students attended Roxbury High School; none attended South Boston. As African American students arrived at the school, they were met by protestors who threw rocks, bricks, and eggs at the buses and carried signs bearing racial epithets and pictures of monkeys. The intensity and vitriol of the crowds made an impression on students arriving at South Boston High School. After her first day at the school, Regina Williams went home to Roxbury and told her mother, “Ma, I am not going back to that school unless I have a gun.”
On day two, the total attendance of the five schools affected by busing in Roxbury and South Boston was 321 African American students; fifty white students; and eleven students of other racial identities out of an estimated enrollment of 4,000 students. Violence on the streets of Boston, where the National Guard were joined by state police (who remained on duty on the streets of South Boston for the next three years) was matched by violence inside schools once attendance rates increased. Racial tension and animosity marked the school year, and Ione Malloy’s primary recollection of her time teaching English at South Boston High School during the busing period is the overwhelming sense of fear—a feeling she asserts pervaded the environment.
While numbers increased as the school year continued, by the end of the academic year attendance still failed to meet enrollment levels. Regina Williams never returned to South Boston High School after her first day. Interviewed years later, Williams said, “I just quit. I quit school…. It was your choice. Either you go to school and get your education and fight for it, or you stay home and be safe and just make wrong decisions or right decisions. All these things that affected me goes back to busing. Lack of education. Lack of basic training and reading. Lack of basic writing. It’s embarrassing, it’s pathetic. You feel cheated. You don’t want to tell anyone you never learned how to write because no one taught you.”
A particularly striking contrast between COVID-19 and busing in Boston is the mandatory nature of school closings during the current pandemic and the voluntary undertaking of those in Boston who decided not to attend school rather than be bused to a school not of their choosing and where they potentially faced the imminent threat of violence.
Fear of violence disrupted college education as well. The most widespread disruption to college education was in the spring of 1970 as thousands of students walked out of 450 colleges to protest President Richard Nixon sending U.S. troops into Cambodia. Those protests turned deadly when the National Guard killed four students and injured nine at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, 1970. Eleven days later Mississippi state and Jackson city police fired on a women’s dormitory at Jackson State University, killing two students and injuring twelve. While the antiwar strikes might have been shorter lived, the deaths of fellow college students forced many schools to close through the end of the term.
Students and faculty from Kent State faced many questions as they left campus immediately after the shooting. Some left with fear and fury toward the National Guard, the administration, and the government. Many students did not feel support at home as some parents responded that the National Guard should have shot more students. Some reported being angry with their parents, treated like “outsiders,” or going to live with friends for a time. Without any counseling, they were left to deal with their trauma alone.
Students and faculty coped with practical matters of completing courses and earning grades—by mail, telephone, or class meetings at faculty homes, in backyards, or at churches. Some professors assigned grades based on work completed to date. Bruce Dzeda remembered feeling guilty and unhappy with his peers when they worried about classes or completing credits: “‘A bunch of us were wounded, they were shooting at us, for God’s sake, and you worry about your goddamned grade. But grades are important to people, and me too. I mean I was a senior, I was about to graduate.”
Like today, the future seemed uncertain on campus. Some feared that the university would close and questioned if they could go back to “normal.” In the fall Professor Scott Layman felt excited to have full classrooms, and students seemed relieved that “they could get back on campus, they could get back on track, continue their education, go toward graduation.”
Students felt a pervasive sense of loss after the shooting—loss of control, loss of direction, loss of hope. Many felt a loss of innocence or that they had been cheated of their college experience. One angry student recalled, “I had a different kind of education, if you will, than the kind of education that I thought I would be getting at Kent.” The hardest part for many was that leaving campus left them without a sense of closure. “There were years of silence when we didn’t talk about it,” remembered Catherine Delattre. “There’s always that sense of wanting closure that you never get.” Many students dropped out the following year and enrollment plummeted for the next decade or so.
The closing of Kent State was similar to the disruptions in the spring of 2020 when college students left campus abruptly, but also points to the uncertainty students and faculty experienced throughout the summer of 2020 as they wondered if they would ever have “normal” college classes again. Today students grapple with ongoing fear due to COVID-19 and try to manage their sense of loss and dashed expectations for their college experience.
School closings reveal many things about society. They can be a force for change or uncover existing systemic issues. Those who lose education are often the students least able to make up for it in other ways and suffer the longest-lasting effects. Just as students in the past missed or had belated commencements, today’s students may also be a “lost class” that does not experience all they expected from their education. While some college students might choose to take a gap year, that is not an option for K-12 students. Many will continue to grieve lost experiences or find it difficult to process their feelings today. By understanding ongoing themes and questions over time, perhaps we can provide resources and address issues students face today in time to improve their futures and resilience.
David Oshinsky’s text—the basis for the American Experience episode—provides a thorough overview of polio’s history in the United States while the other sources would allow instructors to investigate particular locations and their specific experiences and responses to polio. Remember Me communicates how March of Dimes framed the disease and attempted to raise awareness about its potential scope.
• American Experience: The Polio Crusade, Directed by Sarah Colt (2009).
• John A. Clausen and Erwin L. Linn, “Public Reaction to a Severe Polio Outbreak in Three Massachusetts Communities,” Social Problems, Special Issue on Medical Sociology, 4 (Jul., 1956), 40-51.
• John Liu, “125 Years of Baylor Series 5 (1936-1948): The Pursuit of Victory,” Vol. 89, No. 9, May 11, 2020.
• David Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story (2006)
• Remember Me, March of Dimes, Periscope Film, 1955.
Prince Edward County
These sources draw heavily on interviews with people who experienced the school closures as students. The museum sites offer extensive context, school photographs, timelines, and additional primary sources for student analysis.
• “The Closing of Prince Edward County’s Schools,” Virginia Museum of History & Culture.
• Kristen Green,“Prince Edward County’s Long Shadow of Segregation,” The Atlantic, Aug. 1, 2015.
• The Future of America’s Past: School Interrupted (2020).
• Robert Russa Moton Museum Educator Resources.
The Kent State Shootings Oral History Project is a wealth of remembrances from students, faculty, and community members, searchable by key words to suit specific needs. Life Magazine and the documentary provide further images and news coverage, as well as political context for the events leading to and in the aftermath of the shootings.
• Kent State University Special Collections,Kent State Shootings Oral History Project.
• The Day the 60s Died, Directed by Jonathan Halperin (2015).
• “Kent State: Four Deaths at Noon,” Life Magazine, May 15, 1970, p. 30-37.
These sources provide both real time coverage of and response to Boston’s busing efforts as well as consideration of the long-term effects of the policy. Teachers might emphasize the effects of memory on the historical considerations of Boston and the overall sense of busing as a strategy for racial integration.
• Archives and Public History at UMass Boston ~ South Boston High School.
• Matthew Delmont, “The Lasting Legacy of the Busing Crisis,” The Atlantic, March 29, 2016.
• Digital Public Library of America, Boston
• Bruce Gellerman, “‘It Was Like A War Zone’: Busing In Boston,” Part 1, Sept. 5, 2014. “Busing Left Deep Scars On Boston, Its Students,” Part 2.
• Ione Malloy, Southie Won't Go: A Teacher's Diary of the Desegregation of South Boston High School (1986).
• WGBH Dorchester Essays Discovered, September 30, 2014.
• WGBH footage before 1974 school year; after 1974-1975 school year; Four Years Later.
Karen Dunak is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. She is writing a book about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, American media, and conceptions of American womanhood.
Shannon M. Smith is Associate Professor of History at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota. She is currently researching the ways that protests and commemorative culture in Minnesota have inscribed power and status differences into public space.
John Shearer, “Dr. Larry Fogo Recalls Also-Scary 1948 Baylor Polio Crisis,” The Chattanoogan, March 25, 2020, John Liu, “125 Years of Baylor Series 5 (1936-1948): The Pursuit of Victory,” Sept. 24, 2020.
Kristen Green, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, A Virginia Town, A Civil Rights Battle (2015); Moton Museum and Longwood University Joint Venture, “Their Voices, Our History: Stories of Prince Edward County, Virginia,” 2 (Spring 2016), 45.
Moton Museum and Longwood University Joint Venture, “Their Voices, Our History,” Spring 2016, 26.
Ibid., 54 and 70.