Lessons from the past: Radio in the Chicago 1937 polio epidemic

This literacy activity is based off of my article for The Conversation, found here.

Until the last half of the 20th century, it was not unusual for schools used to briefly shut down for weeks or even months. I’m not just talking about holiday or summer breaks. Hunting season, the fall harvest, and inclement weather kept students at home. Times of crisis also impacted education, as coal shortages in the 1930s and 40s forced schools in cold regions to temporarily close, as illustrated in this newspaper article from 1936.

Herman Schools Close During Week. Herman Record (Nebraska). Feb. 20, 1936 -
From the Herman Record, Feb. 20, 1936

Before the advent of vaccines and treatments for scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, and polio, outbreaks of these common childhood illnesses also prompted officials to close schools.

School closings typically halted formal learning, granting kids extra time for play or work on the farm. Schools sometimes compensated for the additional closings by shifting the academic calendar or by mandating Saturday attendance once school was back in session.

The concept of distance-learning did exist, mostly through correspondence courses (classes taught by mail), but wasn’t commonly used during school closures. That is until Fall 1937, when school officials in Chicago decided to teach children at home using a relatively new technology: the radio.

It might seem weird to us now, but people in the 1930s were very used to just sitting and listening to the radio. By this time, over 90% of urban American homes had at least one radio — and they tuned in often, spending more than 4 hours a day listening to news and entertainment. (For an overview, watch this video). Individuals and families gathered around the radio much like we would a TV.

Radio had been used as an educational tool periodically since Penn State first offered broadcasted college courses in 1922. On a small-scale, radio programming occasionally served as a substitute for in-person instruction, as in 1932, when radio provided summer school curriculum in Chicago after budget cuts eliminated the regular session. Yet, no one had tried using radio to teach large groups of children.

Polio was a feared disease back then. While most people only had mild cases, the disease sometimes led to either temporary or permanent paralysis. Photos of children in iron lungs (machines to help them breathe) or using crutches frequently appeared in newspapers and magazines, making people more afraid of polio.

Pictures like this contributed to the fear of polio.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1937, a polio epidemic erupted. On August 31, 1937, the Board of Health in Chicago ordered the start of school to be postponed due to the record number of polio cases (109, just for August). Instead of just keeping kids at home, a “radio school experiment” was launched, led by Assistant Superintendent Minnie Fallon. She worked with 14 principals to design the curriculum for 317,000 children in grades 3-8. (It was decided that those in lower grades might not do as well with radio learning).

On Monday, September 13th, students tuned in for their first day of radio school. Three radio stations broadcasted the lessons, with local newspapers printing daily schedules, like this:

The schedule for Sept. 14, 1937, printed in The Chicago Tribune

Over a week, students were taught math, English, social studies, physical education, and science, with each lesson lasting 15 minutes.

Unlike our video technology now, the radio was a one-way form of communication. Teachers couldn’t talk with their students directly, however, a telephone helpline was set up for questions. Similar to today, parents had to oversee the radio learning, captured in this photo of a mom helping her kids:

Printed in The Rock Island Argus on Sept. 14, 1937.

The experiment only lasted three weeks. Declining polio rates meant that children got to go back to school in person. Even with this brief time, the radio school was a success, demonstrating that the technology could be used to teach people. Radio stations began to partner with local educators and found more ways to make radio educational. By February 1938, radios had been placed in many classrooms and opportunities for kids to do their own news shows had begun.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why did the children of 1937 have to stay home? How is that similar to our need to have distance learning in the past year?
  2. What would it be like to learn through the radio? What do you think were some of the obstacles to this approach? How would that be different from lessons through Zoom or other video platforms?
  3. Not everyone had a radio then, just like not everyone has a computer now. What does it mean for the children who are left out in remote learning? What can be done to help families who don’t have internet access or computers?
  4. Radio learning led to the use of more technology in the classrooms. How will distance-learning now lead to new kinds of learning in the future?
  5. Media content from the past give us a glimpse into different cultural moments, like the radio school. After the COVID pandemic is over, what will people know about this time period from the news, social media posts, and other content produced in this time? If you only watched TikTok or Youtube videos from 2020-2021, what would you think that living through this pandemic was like?

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