Long-Distance Learning Isn’t New

When a polio outbreak closed Chicago schools in 1937, teachers turned to technology.
By Charu Raman

American schoolchildren and teachers are in the midst of a massive experiment in education via the internet. There are parallels to 1937, when a polio outbreak closed Chicago schools and teachers turned to technology: Radio.

Classes were broadcast by teachers on at least six stations: 15-minute lessons in four subjects for grades 3 through 8. In lieu of textbooks, lesson plans and assignments were published in newspapers.

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A schedule of lesson plans being broadcast via the radio. (Chicago Tribune)

In 1937, there was a technology divide for students without a radio at home. In 2020, lack of computers and high-speed internet has educators worried many students are falling behind. Los Angeles schools report that many students have simply dropped off the radar.

News reports from 1937 show parents complained that radio lessons were too fast, assuming “all minds are of equal comprehension potentially.” School officials today acknowledge that many students, especially those with special needs, struggle with virtual classrooms.

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Three teachers outlining studies that could be pursued while Chicago’s schools were closed. (Chicago Tribune)

In the 1930s, its boosters thought radio might replace textbooks, even teachers. But one administrator, Minnie Fallon, concluded then what many parents and students have today: “No mechanical device can be successfully substituted for…the pupil-teacher relationship.

Chicago’s shutdown in 1937 lasted only three weeks. In 2020, many students will miss three months of classroom instruction. The educational impact remains a big question mark. But studies of learning loss during summer break may provide clues.

For more on the challenges of online education, watch our Retro Report “The Future of College.”

This article was adapted from a Twitter thread that was created with support from a Brown Institute for Media Innovation grant recognizing the need for accurate information about the Covid-19 virus. Learn something new from history: Subscribe to our newsletter, and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.