The many social benefits that schools offer their communities in addition to educating students — such as feeding children, providing health care and social services, as well as socializing youth under the guidance of trained adults — became a core part of public schooling through the Progressive Era reforms of the early 20th century.
And it is exactly these functions that our districts have not been able to bundle with remote learning because a fundamental premise of our system is that schools are place-based institutions. Schools are geographically, socially, and culturally enmeshed in their local communities through daily interactions in and around the building.
The challenge was, as William Wirt articulated when describing his widely influential reform model, the Gary Plan, that “school must do what the school, the home, and the small shop formerly did together.”
Developed in 1907, this system entailed extending the school day and expanding the curriculum through partnerships with local libraries, churches, the YMCA, and businesses to cultivate a broader community into which students were being enculturated. This effort to care for the whole child and not focus strictly on intellectual development is a hallmark contribution of the American Progressive Era education reform movement.
In taking on this greater role, schools necessarily became more responsive to society’s disruptive events. Schools grappled with World War I, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, tuberculosis and measles all at once during the 1910s. The influx of issues and communicable diseases prompted a keen focus on children’s health. A peculiar innovation during this era was the development of open-air schools to prevent the spread of tuberculosis.