Exploring 'open air' schools, used during tuberculosis outbreak

October 4, 2020

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — In 2020, classrooms are going virtual due to coronavirus. But in the 1900s, as tuberculosis raged through the population, children still needed to go to school. One solution was open air school.

Dr. Cindy Connolly, professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing and an associate director at the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the history of Nursing, said two of them in Philadelphia are still schools today.

The McCall School on South 7th Street and the Jackson School on South 12th Street continue to operate in South Philadelphia.

McCall had classes on the roof, while Jackson had a wall of windows built.

Nurses and teachers at the school were working to either prevent the disease or help treat it, because there was no cure at the time.

Connolly said people thought sunlight, better nutrition and fresh air would help. She explained cows were infected more often during the late 19th to early 20th century, and case studies found that lots of kids were infected by eating infected meat.

Even in the winter, classes would take place in open air. "They would wear what they called little eskimo suits that looked to me like sleeping bags with hoods," described Connolly.

"The science in that era was basically that people would put people in an open air school and then document how much weight they gained, how much energy they had and then consider that, not with a control group."

Their legacy is complicated. Connolly noted the quantifiable impact the schools had on children's health is unknown. Their existence, however, speaks to how America treated children and put them first during an outbreak.

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