In the Time of the Pandemics: How did Universities Respond? A look back in history

Although one hundred years apart, COVID-19 and the Spanish influenza pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu, share similarities. Both outbreaks pushed the world to hit pause on social gatherings by enforcing isolation and #StayHome orders, with a large impact on colleges and universities. As higher education leaders are struggle to determine what to do next, it may be helpful to look at how universities responded to past pandemics.

Bubonic Plague

In the 14th Century, the Bubonic plague pandemic struck Europe, killing off half of the country’s population. Public gatherings were banned. Strangers were not allowed to enter the town, mirroring the rules imposed in response to COVID-19.

The University of Oxford was still new, and in response to the Black Death pandemic, the students and lecturers left the city and isolated. The Black Death pandemic was the start of many to come. For centuries, pandemics would plague the country, and universities were forced to adapt by developing “exit strategies” to leave the university town. The displaced students and lecturers would find ways to gather in the countryside.

Spanish Flu

In 1918, the Spanish influenza pandemic struck the world. Many universities developed response

strategies to help minimize the spread of the virus. Stanford University isolated students infected with the virus and ordered all students to wear flu masks at all times. Students without a mask were fined. The University of North Carolina went under full quarantine.

At Elon College, more than 75% of the student population contracted the virus in just a few days. Elon College opted to transform their gym into a university infirmary where the healthy students volunteered to care for the sick students. Students at Bryn Mawr College cleaned floors and windows to open a local inn for patients. Smith College students helped address food challenges by picking vegetables and harvesting crops. Many institutions followed suit—they transformed its on campus gyms to isolate the sick and by early 20th century colleges and universities across the country treated ill students. The outbreak of pandemics led colleges and universities to require vaccinations before entering the campuses.

Although colleges and universities are still addressing barriers and challenges, ultimately, COVID-19 is not too dissimilar from past pandemic responses—partnership and collaboration are vital to address the needs of their ecosystem. Higher education leaders quickly responded and collaborated with departments and units to help support their community. Students have engaged in online remote learning, professors have become advisors and support systems, and university administrators have supported the surrounding communities. The response theme from past pandemics emulates colleges and universities very mission to support and serve the public, which is the essence of higher education.

Header image credit: Istock Maryna Terletska