Coronavirus has shut down college campuses across the world, but institutions of higher education have weathered worse pandemics with great resiliency.

Higher Education and Pandemics

A History of Universities and Viral Outbreaks

In late March, the University of Washington announced the cancellation of in-person classes in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Today, almost 300 colleges and universities across the country have followed suit, with many switching to online education for the spring term.

While the response to COVID-19 might seem unprecedented, colleges and universities have a long history of canceling classes and closing campuses to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

In fact, despite mistakes and ongoing challenges, the proactive response of many higher education institutions to the coronavirus outbreak shows how resilient universities are in times of crisis — especially compared to the past.

The Plague and the Year of Wonders

The history of closing colleges because of epidemics dates back nearly as long as higher education itself.

Oxford students had created informal “escape plans” to flee the university town whenever plague struck.

When the Black Death struck Europe in the 14th century, killing off half the population, the University of Oxford was still a relatively new institution. In response to the plague, most students and lecturers fled the city. Many returned to the countryside or isolated manors to avoid the epidemic.

The plague didn't end in the 14th century, however. For several centuries, plague epidemics struck seemingly at random. Universities had to adapt to the new disease, and by the 15th century, Oxford students had created informal "escape plans" to flee the university town whenever plague struck. Countryside manors became official gathering places for displaced students.

Britain's last major outbreak of plague came in 1665-1666. In a single week, over 7,000 Londoners died. In response, King Charles II imposed new rules to stop the spread of plague. Public gatherings were banned — even funerals. Strangers could not enter any town unless they presented a certificate of health. Towns were ordered to create "pest-houses" in remote locations to house the infected.

The room where Isaac Newton studied at Cambridge University.
The room where Isaac Newton studied at Cambridge University.

Across the country, universities closed in response to the plague. At Cambridge University, a young student named Isaac Newton left college behind to wait out the plague in the countryside.

[A] young student named Isaac Newton left college behind to wait out the plague in the countryside.

Newton's year away from Cambridge later became known as his annus mirabilis, or "year of wonders." Newton investigated optics using a glass prism he'd picked up at a Cambridge market before fleeing. During his year of quarantine, Newton also developed theories on calculus, gravity, and the laws of motion.

Though the threat of plague remained, Newton proclaimed his plague retreat one of the most productive periods in his career. "For in those days I was in the prime of my age for invention and minded mathematics and philosophy more than at any time since," Newton recalled.

When the plague died down, Newton returned to Cambridge and two years later became a professor of mathematics.

Spanish Influenza and the Volunteer Spirit

In 1918, an influenza epidemic began in the American heartland before spreading around the world, eventually killing 50 million people. The virus took a particularly high toll among young and healthy adults. The Spanish flu, as it came to be called despite its probable American origins, quickly descended on colleges and universities across the country.

Stanford University isolated anyone affected by the flu and ordered students to wear flu masks at all times. Mary Sloan Wilbur arrived on campus during the outbreak. "It was mandatory that everyone should wear flu masks; you were fined if found without one," she later recalled.

During the Spanish flu pandemic at the University of Montana, classes were held in the open.
During the Spanish flu pandemic at the University of Montana, classes were held in the open.

"They were bought for 10 or 15 cents a piece and were made of cheesecloth with loops over the ears," Wilbur explained. "It was both difficult and amusing to try to follow a professor who was lecturing through one.”

At the University of North Carolina, the father of an undergraduate student wrote to the university's president, Edward Kidder Graham. The letter read, "Should our son John come down with influenza and his condition in any sense be serious, please notify … by wire at my expense.”

In 1918, an influenza epidemic began in the American heartland before spreading around the world, eventually killing 50 million people.

In October 1918, the entire UNC campus went under quarantine, and Graham himself died from the flu. His successor, Marvin Stacy, also died during the outbreak.

At Elon College, the influenza epidemic struck in mere days, spreading to 75% of the students. With no time to close campus, the college transformed its gym into a makeshift infirmary, with healthy students nursing those who fell ill.

An open air barbershop at the University of California during the Spanish flu pandemic.
An open air barbershop at the University of California during the Spanish flu pandemic.

College students also responded by volunteering to care for others. The Women's Medical College in Philadelphia sent juniors and seniors to hospitals where they cared for the ill. Students at the Pennsylvania School for Social Services volunteered as nurses' aides.

When Smith College closed down due to the pandemic, students dubbed themselves "farmerettes," promising to prevent food shortages by heading to the fields where they dug up potatoes and harvested crops.

Quarantines and the Quad

During epidemics, colleges and universities have often relied on quarantines to protect the student population. In the 19th century, college administrators encouraged student health through hygiene courses. And when epidemics appeared, 19th century colleges quickly quarantined students.

Vaccination policies help stop outbreaks on college campuses before they grow into a major problem.

Vassar and Wellesley created on-campus infirmaries to isolate sick students. Princeton and William and Mary soon followed. By the early 20th century, colleges across the country treated students in infirmaries.

In the later 20th century, many colleges protected student health in another way: by requiring vaccinations before coming to campus.

During the smallpox epidemic of 1885, McGill University vaccinated all students to protect them from the disease. Vaccinations became increasingly common, and when a smallpox outbreak hit Vancouver in 1928, the University of British Columbia avoided the epidemic thanks to its large population of vaccinated students.

Rally of an anti-vaccination league in Canada in 1919.
Rally of an anti-vaccination league in Canada in 1919.

In the 1920s, the University of Toronto and McGill University required students to get a smallpox vaccination before enrolling. In the 1940s, the University of Alberta added scarlet fever, typhoid, and diptheria to the required vaccinations. Schools also began testing students for infectious diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis to control outbreaks.

Students didn't always react well to compulsory vaccination. In 1905, one student turned down an acceptance offer at an Ontario university, stating, "It is some years since I was vaccinated, and I am very much against it."

Yet these vaccination policies help stop outbreaks on college campuses before they grow into a major problem.

Measles, Ebola, and SARS

When we think of modern epidemics, influenza probably comes to mind first. But several other infectious diseases have forced schools to close their doors to protect students. Since 2000, colleges around the world have shut down over outbreaks of measles, Ebola, and SARS.

In 2019, the University of California Los Angeles and California State University Los Angeles quarantined nearly 1,000 students and staff members because of a measles outbreak. After a student infected with measles attended class on the UCLA campus, the university jumped into action, creating a quarantine zone for potentially exposed students.

Since 2000, colleges around the world have shut down over outbreaks of measles, Ebola, and SARS.

UCLA student Sarah Kiamanesh told CBS News, "I have been hyper-aware of all the symptoms and stuff. Like, I've been itchy and I'm like, 'do I have measles?' I've been super worried."

In 2014, Southwestern College taped off an entire building, quarantining students, after a potential exposure to the Ebola virus. A student self-reported contact with a nurse later diagnosed with the virus, leading the campus police to isolate the building where the student had attended class.

After the 2003 SARS epidemic, one Singapore university began issuing personal thermometers to faculty and staff. The university also instituted a policy to quickly transition courses into an online format if an epidemic forced school closures. In 2020, when COVID-19 hit Singapore, the university was able to transition over a thousand courses to an online learning environment in less than 12 hours.

By preparing for an epidemic before it emerged, the university could quickly implement policies designed to stop the spread of disease. Before entering campus facilities, everyone underwent a temperature screening. The university also began tracking people's movements on campus by recording their presence in buildings, making it easy to trace contact with a potentially contagious person.

These policies, developed in response to SARS, have helped Singapore keep its COVID-19 numbers very low compared to the United States.

A brightly lit contemporary lecture hall sits completely empty.

College in a Time of Coronavirus

Many colleges and universities developed pandemic response plans long before the novel coronavirus appeared.

In the United States, the 2006 pandemic plan encouraged colleges and universities to create preparedness plans for respiratory pandemics. "Colleges and universities will play an integral role in protecting the health and safety of students, employees, and their families," the plan declared.

The plan recommended creating a pandemic response team, developing multiple plans for different outbreak scenarios depending on the severity of the illness, and determining how to close campus, if necessary.

In response, many colleges and universities created epidemic plans, including continuity of instruction policies such as online education.

Students across the world can take comfort in the fact that institutions of higher education have weathered these storms before, and will do so again in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

And when U.S. cases began to rise in early March 2020, colleges and universities were ready to respond to the coronavirus.

What makes the college response to COVID-19 different from earlier pandemics? Today's technologies make it much easier to protect students by closing campuses. Isaac Newton may have spent his plague year perfecting scientific formulas, but for most students shutting down school once meant an end to their academic progress.

Today, though, colleges can shift to online learning, allowing students to make progress toward their degree even during a global pandemic. Students across the world can also take comfort in the fact that institutions of higher education have weathered these storms before, and will do so again in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.