Nine schoolchildren sat at their desks wrapped in chunky layers of flannel, their feet resting on heated soapstones as the frigid New England air stung their faces. In January 1908, amid a tuberculosis epidemic, these Rhode Island students were part of a unique experiment to combat the infectious disease: America’s first open-air school.

More than a century later, educators are touting outdoor classes as a way to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus among America’s schoolchildren.

In the early 1900s, it was estimated that as many as 30 percent of school-age children in Providence carried tuberculosis, a bacterial infection that often attacked the lungs. Although many of the infected children showed no outward symptoms, the infection could lie dormant for years and ultimately contribute to death in adulthood. To combat this, medical experts urged the importance of plenty of sunshine and fresh air.

Tuberculosis specialist Mary Packard — one of the first women to graduate from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine — wrote to the Rhode Island state medical examiner in August of 1907 to propose a plan. Along with fellow Hopkins-educated physician Ellen Stone, Packard had overseen an open-air summer camp for tubercular children. The students who attended the camp were set to return to their cramped classrooms in the city at the start of the school year. The doctors feared that any progress that had been made over the summer would be lost. They suggested the creation of a new type of classroom.

Work soon began on an unused schoolhouse on Providence’s East Side. The large, open classroom on the second floor was painted a soft shade of green, save for the wall facing south. This was demolished and replaced with a row of large windows operated by pulleys. Despite the harsh winter temperatures, these windows remained open during class — filling the room with fresh air and sunlight.

“It is not claimed that the school is in any way ideal, and, in fact, it has only been undertaken provisionally as an experiment,” Stone wrote in the Journal of the Outdoor Life in 1908. “However, it does seem a step in the right direction, and if a number of open-air rooms could be established in various parts of the city … might they not be of some value in the suppression of tuberculosis?”

The school’s pupils varied in age and grade level, but they did share a similar set of characteristics: They were all underweight, anemic and weak. For some in attendance, it was their first opportunity to participate in an actual classroom due to a lifetime of poor health. Some had recently lost parents to tuberculosis.

Each child was weighed and examined by a physician after arriving to class. Then the children would be wrapped in large flannel sacks lined with paper and cotton, many of which were donated by a local church’s sewing circle.

Each student’s desk sat atop a movable platform that allowed for the pupils to be easily shuffled around during the day to chase the rays of direct sunlight. Students were led in breathing exercises and singing practice to strengthen their lungs. Owing to its former use as a cooking school, the classroom was outfitted with a cavernous oven that served as a source of warmth.

News of the school quickly spread, with newspapers across the country running an identical report shortly after the school opened: “Little faces that were sallow and pinched a few weeks ago have a healthy flush, and children who were too tired to play are beginning to show some interest in life. All of this … is what the fresh-air school has accomplished.”

The Providence open-air experiment was viewed as a success by parents and educators.

“After two years the school committee concluded that the experiment had more than met the expectations of its proponents,” wrote historian Richard Meckel in a 1995 article in Rhode Island History. “Virtually all the children attending the school had gained weight and improved in general health, and even a few had been able to return to normal classrooms.”

But with this initial success came another challenge. The first open-air school had quickly reached its capacity. By 1912, Providence school officials estimated that at least nine additional open-air schools were needed to house the city’s infected students. This was a problem that the initial school’s creators had predicted.

“In the light of the amount of tuberculosis found at autopsy in children dying of other diseases and from accident, we must recognize the fact that many school children are carrying about hidden foci of this disease, and is it not probable that those are who are suffering with anemia, debility, etc., are likely to be the ones?” Stone had written four years earlier. “At all events, any one familiar with the confining atmosphere of even our best city schools cannot but recognize that there are a great many children to whom lessons in the open air for awhile would do much towards increasing their resistance and thus preventing future breakdown from tuberculosis?”

In 1913, Providence finally opened a second open-air school. That number reached 11 in 1926, and these special facilities would serve the city for another 31 years. By that time, the concept of an open-air classroom had spread to more than 150 American cities, aiding both the minds and bodies of thousands of students.

But advancements in antibiotics in the 1940s allowed doctors to treat tuberculosis with drugs instead of fresh air. As children’s health improved, the need for open-air classrooms in Providence became less urgent. Spanning five decades, the city’s grand experiment with open-air learning came to an end in 1957, when the program’s few remaining classrooms were closed.

Students in Rhode Island return to school on Monday amid a very different health crisis. Many children will be able to attend classes in person instead of virtually, but members of the Providence Teachers Union are worried that some classrooms are not safe. One of the concerns, according to the Providence Journal, is ventilation and classroom windows that are unable to open.

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