Some lessons still need to be learned.


This post was first published in May 2020 by Toria Bono, just after VE Day, but given recent events is worth revisiting. Have we learned any lessons since then? Is history repeating itself?

Some lessons are more important.

It’s Saturday evening, and sitting here with what I can only describe as a ‘fuzzy head’ from far too many home-made gins during the previous day’s VE celebration, my head is swimming with thoughts about tomorrow’s government announcement. What will Boris say? What will be the impact on schools? Will it be similar to the endless speculation appearing on social media? What will our response be?

Now of all the questions above, the easiest one to answer is the latter. I do genuinely believe that, regardless of the announcement, school leaders will look at their own communities, their own demographic and then make the right choice. We will do what is needed to keep everybody within our school community (and beyond) safe – it’s what we have been doing throughout this pandemic.

However, it did get me thinking about whether there are comparisons between our current situation and that of our predecessors.  For the past two months nearly, Howden Junior School, and our noisy neighbours at Howden Infant School, have been virtually deserted – in fact there were 4 from over 400 children in on Friday; classrooms are empty, the corridors silent and our school communities are spread far and wide. Surely, it can never have been like this in term time before. 

At least that’s what I thought…

What does our history show?

Like many other schools, we are fortunate enough to have the logbooks for the Juniors and Infants (as it was combined many years ago). These records go back almost to the start of the 20th century, so I was able to turn to the entries for summer and autumn on 1918, when waves of influenza swept across the country, to see the impact in Howden.

On November 8th 1918, the school had 86 children absent (although it doesn’t specify how many had contracted the flu) and the decision was made to close the school.

The school remained closed for 5 weeks – only reopening for 4 days before closing the Christmas period (which they extended to 2 weeks). In fact, when the school did reopen, 100 children did not return. The Headteacher put this down to the fact it was not ‘well advertised’ that the school was re-opening. 

Yet, I wonder, how many of those 100 children’s parents merely chose to keep their children at home for fear of catching the flu – despite the best effort of the Headteacher to mitigate the spread of the influenza?

During the 5 weeks that followed the re-opening, there are numerous accounts of low attendance due to pupil and staff absence linked to the flu (in fact 3 teachers were absent on February 10th 1919 due to contracting the flu). Shortly after this account, the school was closed again.

After the initial closure of the school. there was a second wave which closed the school again approximately 5 weeks later as the second wave of the Spanish Flu hit Howden.

Now, although these records give limited insight into the decisions school leaders took when reopening the school or during school closure (I imagine home-learning was limited), it does give an insight into the impact of the decisions taken by wider government on our community.

What seems to be clear from searching record for similar accounts (of which there are very few), is that close of school significantly reduced the Spanish Flu transmission in Howden, yet the viral spread was quickly renewed when schools were reopened and social distancing measures were relaxed.

Anyone who has read even the basic information regarding Spanish Flu will know that, until successful medical intervention were deployed alongside social distancing, the waves that followed the initial relaxation (particularly the second wave) were the most severe. If the current speculation regarding Boris Johnson’s announcement on Sunday is correct (or even close), it has a worryingly familiar ring to it.

After joyous (and somewhat limited in social-distancing) celebrations across the country for VE Day, let’s see if Boris and his government really know their history.